[Screen It]

(2002) (Tim Allen, Rene Russo) (PG-13)

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Comedy: The lives of various disparate people become further entangled by the appearance of a nuclear bomb inside a small suitcase.
Eliot Arnold (TIM ALLEN) once had a good life, as he was happily married and an 18-year employee with the Miami Herald writing humor columns. After being fired and cheated on, however, Eliot has decided to reinvent himself with his own ad agency. He isn't happy, however, especially when dealing with obnoxious clients such as Bruce (MICHEAL McSHANE), a beer man, and knowing that his teenage son, Matt (BEN FOSTER), considers him to be a "loser."

Matt and his friend Andrew (DJ QUALLS) are interested in making a water gun hit on droll classmate Jenny Herk (ZOOEY DESCHANEL). She lives with her mom, Anna (RENE RUSSO), and stepfather Arthur (STANLEY TUCCI), although neither of them can stand him. The same holds true for his company that's decided to hire two hitmen from Newark, Henry (DENNIS FARINA) and his dimwitted partner, Leonard (JACK KEHLER), to kill Arthur for stealing money from them.

Meanwhile, the Herks' immigrant housekeeper, Nina (SOFIA VERGARA), has fallen for a Frito-loving drifter by the name of Puggy (JASON LEE) who recently had a run-in with two moronic lowlifes, Snake Dupree (TOM SIZEMORE) and Eddie Ledbetter (JOHNNY KNOXVILLE), in a bar serving as a cover for two Russian arms dealers.

The simultaneous hit attempts on Jenny and Arthur eventually result in the arrival of Miami police officers Monica Romero (JANEANE GAROFALO) and Walter Kramitz (PATRICK WARBURTON), who later must deal with twins Jack & Ralph Pendick (ANDY RICHTER), two overzealous security guards.

Things become more complicated when the Russian arms dealers sell a nuclear suitcase bomb to Arthur that's then stolen by Snake and Eddie who are unaware of what it really is. FBI Agents Greer (DWIGHT "HEAVY D" MYERS) and Seitz (OMAR EPPS) then arrive on the scene, resulting in a wild chase that eventually involves everyone else and leads to the airport as the lowlifes attempt to flee the country.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Although it often seems to come both naturally and easily to those who deploy it on either professional or amateur levels, most anyone who delves in comedy for a living will tell you that it's much harder than it looks and more difficult to pull off than drama.

After all, failed drama might be boring or even bad, but comedy that doesn't work is usually a far uglier and more painful affair to witness. That also holds true with attempts at transferring specific jokes or styles of comedy from one medium to another, such as from a written to a visual one.

There's no denying that one of the more notable practitioners of the former is nationally syndicated humor columnist Dave Barry. He certainly has a unique, signature style of comedy that near always plays off the written word and usually some sort of wacky or bizarre source material stemming from events in his hometown of Miami or that which is sent in by his readers.

With his 1999 novel, "Big Trouble," now having been adapted to the big screen in a film of the same name, the question is whether his literary spirit can exist in cinematic form. The answer is yes and no. Working from but not steadfastly adhering to the particulars of Barry's work, screenwriters Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone ("Life," "Destiny Turns on the Radio") and director Barry Sonnenfeld ("Men in Black," "The Addams Family") have fashioned an amusing if not particularly hilarious comedy.

The result is a lightweight and rapidly moving picture - originally scheduled for release in mid September but delayed due to the events of 9/11 and part of the film dealing with a nuclear bomb being smuggled through airport security onto a plane that's then hijacked -- that offers a few laughs, but isn't anything tremendous.

That's mainly due to a convoluted but otherwise weak plot that may evoke Dave Barry's whimsical sense of humor, but never really knocks the jokes from the ball field. Instead of home runs, we get some singles and doubles, a point that might disappoint some, but may appease others looking for some comedic fluff in what's otherwise amounted to a rather flat movie comedy season.

Somewhat reminiscent of Sonnenfeld's winning adaptation of Elmore Leonard's fabulous "Get Shorty" - in that the film has many characters and storylines of criminal behavior and other doings that repeatedly crisscross -- the film's goal is to elicit laughs from the various zany characters and/or their goals and behavior. Yet, while some of that works, the effort clearly isn't as well made or entertaining as "Get Shorty" or some of Sonnenfeld's other work (although it's much better than the debacle known as "Wild Wild West").

Most of that is due to the film having too many characters and from the sources of comedy the filmmakers have chosen in attempts to generate humor. Much like last year's "Rat Race," the film's large ensemble cast is both a blessing and detriment to the overall effort. For every character and situation that doesn't work, there's surely one or more that will, but the high number of characters exacts a toll on most of their ability to sport any sort of development, engage the viewer or exist in a memorable, overall story.

In fact, while one can see writer Barry's signature style of comedy all over the work, the various gags, characters and situations don't gel into a cohesive goal. Accordingly, most of the comedic attempts stand on their own, with the plot - which isn't inherently humorous on its own -- really only serving as a means for all of them and the many characters to collide and/or intermingle.

Among the various gags that are present but probably would have been funnier in a Barry column is material dealing with a character driving a Geo (which has presumably assumed the Yugo throne as the butt of automotive humor); a sports talk radio station that only deals with calls about the Gators; Fritos; Martha Stewart; talk of learning things from various cable channels; watching a woman in a leotard on TV exercise; and, of course, all of the airport security stuff used as comedy, etc.

Most of the material is far more amusing than downright or outright outrageous or hilarious. That includes all of the mismatched or disparate character pairings that permeate the proceedings, some of which offer some decent laughs, while others are noticeably less successful at that.

Much like the rest of the film and its attempts at being funny, the performances are a mixed bag. As usual, Dennis Farina ("Sidewalks of New York," "Snatch") is quite entertaining to watch as the constantly irritated hitman, even if he's playing the same sort of character he often does. Janeane Garofalo ("Wet Hot American Summer," "Mystery Men") and Patrick Warburton ("Joe Somebody," "The Dish") are fun as cop partners who are somewhat like an old married couple who never got around to being intimate, while Zooey Deschanel ("Almost Famous," "Mumford") is a hoot to watch with her character's droll reactions to everything (she would have fit in perfectly with the other characters in "Ghost World").

Tom Sizemore ("Black Hawk Down," "Pearl Harbor") and Johnny Knoxville ("Men in Black 2," "Deuces Wild") are decent as two grimy and moronic lowlifes (a scene where they try to rob a bar at night wearing black pantyhose over their heads - with the long legs still attached - is rather funny), but the likes of Tim Allen ("Joe Somebody," "Galaxy Quest"), Rene Russo ("Showtime," "The Thomas Crown Affair") and Stanley Tucci ("America's Sweethearts," "Sidewalks of New York") can't do much with their underdeveloped and one-note characters. The same holds true for Dwight "Heavy D" Myers ("The Cider House Rules," "Life") and Omar Epps ("Dracula 2000," "Love & Basketball") as two FBI agents who arrive later in the film.

Various other performers inhabit various other characters scattered throughout the proceedings - including Jason Lee ("Vanilla Sky," "Almost Famous"), Andy Richter ("Scary Movie 2," TV's "Late Night With Conan O'Brien") and Sofia Vergara (making her feature film debut), but similarly can't do much with their limited roles. Perhaps if a few had been excised and the rest built up to some degree, they and the film might have been better or at least funnier, but unfortunately that's not the case.

All of the ingredients are present - and perhaps too many - for a high comedic time, but they either weren't completely stirred or left in the oven long enough to result in a scrumptious comedy yield. While certainly not unpleasant to consume, the effort isn't as tasty as one would imagine, expect or hope. Near constantly amusing and quickly paced but rarely hilarious or contagiously entertaining, the film is enjoyable, but also unremarkable and instantly forgettable. "Big Trouble" rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed April 5, 2002 / Posted April 6, 2002

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