‘Big Trouble’

Dave Barry’s wryly funny novel comes to theaters with an ensemble cast.   [PG-13]

By: Elise Nakhnikian
   There was a lot of talk in the entertainment industry after Sept. 11 about whether the attacks on the World Trade Center had changed what kinds of movies and TV shows Americans would watch. At the time, I dismissed this as self-important Hollywood hoo-ha, but after watching Big Trouble, I think there’s something to it.
   Big Trouble faithfully follows the plot of Dave Barry’s wryly funny novel of the same name. Director Barry Sonnenfeld has done well in the past with similar, even subtler material, turning Elmore Leonard’s Get Shorty into a smart, snappy movie. But Big Trouble falls flat. This may be partly because Leonard’s books are full of dialogue, while Barry’s humor is mostly in his descriptions, which are harder to translate. But that’s not the whole story.


Patrick Warburton, Tim Allen and Ben Foster star in Big Trouble.

   The screenplay shares the book’s penchant for making fun of stupid people, particularly stupid men — one of the few remaining character types that filmmakers feel free to mock. It often lifts dialogue from the book, as when Jenny (well played by Zooey Deschanel), a sardonic high school student, responds to her stepfather’s drunken tirade by announcing she’s going to her room: "Where’s it’s not so, I don’t know — stupid." At least for the first hour, it lightens the book’s tone, leaching out the satire, piling on the slapstick, brightening up the dark edges and turning an ensemble caper into a star vehicle for Tim Allen, who plays Eliot Arnold.
   Things look bad for Eliot when the movie opens. Recently divorced and fired from his job as a newspaper columnist, he’s behind on child-support payments for his teen-age son, Matt (Ben Foster), reduced to catering to abusive clients at his small-time ad agency. But everything changes one night after Matt and a friend go to Jenny’s house, where Matt is supposed to "kill" Jenny as part of a game involving squirt guns.
   As it happens, two hit men from Jersey are also staking out the house, having been hired to kill Jenny’s stepfather, Arthur Herk (Stanley Tucci). Neither Matt nor the real killers hit their targets, but bullets are fired, cops are called, and Matt is decked by Jenny’s mother, Anna (Rene Russo), who thinks he’s trying to kill her daughter.
   For the rest of the movie, Anna, Jenny, Arthur, Eliot, Matt, and Arthur’s would-be killers keep hooking up in various combinations, along with two small-time thieves, a sweet-tempered drifter named Puggy (Jason Lee), a smart female cop named Monica (Janeane Garofalo) and her not-so-smart partner, Walter (Patrick Warburton).
   Sound confusing? It is, since the movie doesn’t always take time to explain what’s happening. Anyone who didn’t read the book, for instance, will be bewildered by the herd of goats that suddenly show up on the highway and startled when Arthur shows up at the arms dealers’ bar and demands to buy a missile.
   That sketchiness isn’t all bad. It keeps viewers off balance, adding to the sense that anything can happen. And there’s plenty to enjoy, if you’re willing to take the movie on its own loose-limbed terms. Garofalo telegraphs intelligence, exasperation and affection in scenes with the galumphing Walter. And our itch to see a couple get together in this sort of movie is amply satisfied as Eliot and Anna, Matt and Jenny, Puggy and the Herks’ maid all pair up. Even Walter finds a soul mate.
   But Big Trouble gets into big trouble in its last 20 minutes or so, as everyone converges on the airport while the thieves board a plane with several guns, a kidnapped Jenny and a nuclear bomb. Originally scheduled for release shortly after Sept. 11, the movie was held until now because of that final sequence, and no wonder. The film suddenly darkens, its humor blacker than Dr. Strangelove, as lines like: "Don’t worry! They’ll never make it through airport security!" provoke uneasy laughs.
   Regardless of world events, the attempt to mix comedy and action at the end of this movie probably wouldn’t have worked. Like the Herks’ dog, Roger, who is described as "the random result of generations of hasty, unplanned dog sex," the parts don’t fit: The ending is neither funny enough to be an Airplane-style spoof nor believable enough to be a Die Hard-style action sequence. Ineffectual Eliot just isn’t the type to hold thieves at bay with a squirt gun, board a runaway plane and boot a bomb overboard, and even Jenny couldn’t maintain that sub-zero level of cool while being kidnapped. But the disconnect would not have been so noticeable if those two planes hadn’t forever altered our sense of reality.
Rated PG-13. Contains language, crude humor and sex-related material.