Barry Bad

Sonnenfeld's comic caper is no Trouble at all

On September 10, Barry Sonnenfeld's Big Trouble, a slight comic caper drenched in the sweltering muck of Miami, was a nagging chore to be tended to by film critics--one more mediocre multimillion-dollar all-star fiasco in which you can almost hear the filmmakers giggling behind the cameras. On September 11, Big Trouble and reviewing it were rendered moot: Hours after the terrorist attacks, Touchstone Pictures decided, not surprisingly, to hold the film from its September 21 release, fearing a scene in which jackass Johnny Knoxville and dumbass Tom Sizemore smuggle hostages, guns and a nuclear bomb onto an airplane wouldn't play well with audiences knocked numb and dumb after witnessing the destruction of the World Trade Center and the scarring of the Pentagon. It seemed Big Trouble was destined to become no trouble at all; the studio had disposed of the mess before critics even had a shot at it.

But like Collateral Damage and Sidewalks of New York and other films bumped from fall release because of terrorist plotlines and Manhattan skylines, Big Trouble returns seven months later, and like a tardy guest blithely bounding through the door while everyone else is trying to exit, it's still unwelcome. That's not because of any lingering ill will engendered by its bombs-away finale--only the highly sensitive or highly stupid would or could draw any parallels between the film's climax, which takes place in the Miami airport and a plane bound for tropical climes, and real-life events--but because Big Trouble plays like reheated Sonnenfeld, one man's tribute to himself.

It smells a lot like 1995's Get Shorty had it been left too long in the humid South Florida sunshine; even the cast looks like something unearthed from a Tupperware container found in the back of the refrigerator, since Dennis Farina and Rene Russo appear in both movies. Only this time, instead of using Elmore Leonard as source material, Sonnenfeld and screenwriters Robert Ramsey (responsible for the intolerable Destiny Turns on the Radio) and Matthew Stone are working from a book by Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry. It's a little like taking one step back and landing square in the swamp. (Leonard also used the Miami setting for much of Out of Sight.)

All tied up with no place to go: From left, Patrick Warburton, Tim Allen, Ben Foster, Rene Russo and Zooey Deschanel are in Big Trouble.
All tied up with no place to go: From left, Patrick Warburton, Tim Allen, Ben Foster, Rene Russo and Zooey Deschanel are in Big Trouble.

At the center of this unremarkable mess (rendered even more forgettable by my 7-month-old notes, which now read like a kidnapper's scribblings--the result, as I recall, of several in-cinema catnaps) is Tim Allen as Eliot Arnold, a disgraced Pulitzer Prize-winner (for his "offbeat stories") tossed out of the newspaper biz. He's landed that most disgraceful of post-journalism gigs: Eliot's now an advertising man with even more disreputable clients than he. Through a series of plot twists too twisted to easily condense--it involves a boy trying to squirt a girl with a water pistol and two numskull hit men, played by Farina and Jack Kehler, trying to off the girl's father with shotguns...at the same time!--Eliot winds up at the home of sweet, spoiled Anna Herk (Russo) and her corrupt, distant husband, Arthur (Stanley Tucci). Before long, the house is overflowing with cops (a dim-bulb Patrick Warburton and a bossy Janeane Garofalo), G-Men (Omar Epps and Dwight Myers, better known as rapper Heavy D) and inept thugs Knoxville and Sizemore, whose routine is all tired slapshtick.

Had Big Trouble been released September 21, it would be out on video now, where it belongs; it plays like one of those errant ensemble movies (cf. Picking Up the Pieces) that shows up on Cinemax every now and again, a big-budget fiasco shrunk down to the smallest screen and lowest common denominator. Every laugh is forced, as though at gunpoint; every scene is strained, as though stretched on a rack. Once again, Sonnenfeld--who also rendered Leonard's Maximum Bob as a limited-run ABC-TV series in 1998--has made a movie in which the bad guys are charmless simpletons, the good guys are bland and wearying and the most interesting characters exist, barely, only in the margins.

Count Sonnenfeld as one more director to completely waste the charms of Jason Lee, who is given few lines and less to do as Puggy, a long-haired lost soul who exists on Fritos, lives in a tree, charms a Peruvian maid and finds himself mixed up in the selling of a nuclear device from shady Russian bar-owners to a smarmy Tucci in a role he now wears like hand-me-downs. Also making small appearances are Andy Richter as a boozing security guard, screenwriter David Koepp (Panic Room) as the loud, disembodied voice of a sports-radio host and Sonnenfeld as his disgruntled caller. Given the invitation list, most of Big Trouble feels like an in-joke, a party where everyone on screen's having a better time than anyone in the theater, and they all couldn't care less. And that's just no fun at all.

 
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