A film review by Craig J. Koban

THE BIG BOUNCE j
½ 

2004, PG-13, 88 mins.

Jack Ryan: Owen Wilson / Bob Rogers Jr.: Charlie Sheen / Lou Harris: Vinnie Jones / Nancy Hayes: Sara Foster / Walter Crewes: Morgan Freeman / Ray Ritchie: Gary Sinise / Joe Lurie: Willie Nelson / Bob Rogers Sr: Harry Dean Stanton / Hawaiian Priest: Butch Helemano

Directed by George Armitage /  Written by Sebastian Gutierrez / Based on a novel by Elmore Leonard

The Big Bounce Double-sided posterThe wonderful novels of writer Elmore Leonard have made for some equally fine and pleasing movie-going experiences.  The various film adaptations all have done a fairly effective job of encapsulating his trademark quirkiness and offbeat characters that are charming with their dialogue despite the fact that they are often seedy criminals. 

Oftentimes this sort of literary magic is not very well presented on the silver screen, and I can only think of a few finite examples of Leonard’s work that appears to have be done justice.  There was Barry Sonnenfeld’s amusing and stylish GET SHORTY, Steven Soderbergh’s fantastic crime-noir OUT OF SIGHT, and the crowning achievement of them all, Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece JACKIE BROWN.  Now comes director George Armitage’s THE BIG BOUNCE, the second adaptation of the novel of the same name (the first was done in 1969 and starred Ryan O’Neil). 

Armitage has done some admirable work in the past  (his GROSSE POINTE BLANK was darkly amusing and well-realized), but THE BIG BOUNCE is a huge letdown, a film that should have all the necessary ingredients of the great Leonard stories, but aimlessly meanders around for 88 minutes and accomplishes very little.  If there were a class taught on how to not adapt great works of literature, THE BIG BOUNCE should be at the absolute heart of the curriculum.   It's kind of shameful how the advertising of the film tried so desperately to plug it as another great caper from the man that "wrote GET SHORTY and OUT OF SIGHT."  THE BIG BOUNCE is nowhere near as good as those efforts.

The film does boast some strong assets, though.  Newcomer Sarah Foster, who plays the girl-next-door that may or may not be trouble,  is absolutely gorgeous to look at, and Armitage spares no expense at providing us with endless moments of having her parade around in the skimpiest of outfits that displays all of her glorious and perfectly tanned assets.  Armitage also seems to have a keen and astute eye for the gorgeous and lush Hawaiian landscapes, and bathes opening establishing shots with wonderful eye-popping color and beautiful vistas.  The film is a terrifically realized bit of eye candy, but that is also sort of what’s wrong with the picture and why it fails as an inspiring and entertaining Leonard piece.  We spend so much time gawking at the sexy Foster and drinking in all of the physical details that it soon becomes apparent that Armitage forgets to tell a well laid out caper-comedy with funny characters and an equally droll script. 

Rule number one:  If you are adapting Leonard, its not the physical details that people want, they want the seedy and fleshed-out characters, the terrifically soulful and enriching dialogue, and the ingeniously scripted plot that leaves you guessing in anticipation of its inevitable double-crosses and twists.  THE BIG BOUNCE has none of that, and comes across more as a glossy travelogue than an intelligent crime comedy.  Sure, Foster has sass and sex appeal, but everyone around her seems zoned out and uninterested in the proceedings.  Its as if every actor is on autopilot and do not seem too sure what film they are making. 

Owen Wilson (incredibly underused here) plays Jack, a quasi-surfer dude that is an ultimate slacker at heart, but has that low-key charm and carefree spirit that makes him difficult to hate.  In an all-too-convenient and simpleminded voice-over narration track at the beginning of the film, he lets the audience know that bad luck and fate has led him to Hawaii.  Yet, trouble still finds this soulful drifter, especially after he takes a baseball bat to the noggin of his construction site foreman, played by Vinnie Jones.  As a result, the law has kept a very short leash on Jack, but one man has developed an interest in him.  Walter Crewes (played in a one-note performance by the usually great Morgan Freeman) sort of takes the hapless Jack under his tutelage.  He even spares the hustler and gives him a job working as a repairman at his own personal bungalow resort.   

Jack sort of enjoys his job, more or less,  because it gives him ample amounts of distinct opportunities to gaze at the sandy beaches, stare at the ever-expansive oceanic views, and, most importantly, be exposed to lots of gorgeous babes.  One in particular grabs is attention right from the beginning.  She is the ridiculously luminous and feisty Nancy (Foster).  She’s a quirky and free spirit, who occupies the story’s need for a light-hearted and cheerful femme-fatale figure that will inevitably seduce Jack and send the story forward to its somewhat preordained conclusion.  You see, Nancy is sleeping with a local rich SOB named Ray Ritchie (the criminally underwritten character played lazily by Oscar nominated actor Gary Sinise).  She is not only toying with Ray, but she is also a seductress to Ray’s somewhat intellectually incapacitated partner, Bob (Charlie Sheen, in another witlessly developed character).  So, the characters are quickly established and  the plot develops the all-too-familiar assertion that things are never quite what they seem.     

To say that this film just does not work on any meaningful level is a polite understatement.  First of all, Armitage and company gets the tone ALL WRONG for this film.  Actually, one of the debilitating aspects of this film is the single-handed lack of desire to firmly establish any sort of tone.  Is it trying to be funny and quirky?  Is it trying to be stylish and provocative?  Is it trying to be light-hearted or more revealing as a thriller-comedy?  The film just can’t decide, and it suffers from what I call cinematic multiple-personality disorder. 

Yes, there are some droll, yet thinly developed characters.  Yes, there is a caper plot that tries to be daring and rousing.  Yet, the end result is kind of a narrative mess and it comes to the point where you're more interested in the next shot of Foster’s savory figure than the next twist of the story.  I should never feel this way while watching a Leonard adaptation.  And as for the obligatory caper that occupies these types of films?   It’s so badly realized and developed that I just tuned out after about a half an hour.  The film is only 88 minutes, but it takes forever to take flight and establish what it wants to be.  The final act, which reveals all of the hidden secrets and allegiances of all the characters, is a textbook exercise of lazy  film direction and editing. 

I think another problem with the film is its lack of emotional investment in the characters.  They are established as being so squeaky clean that it’s hard to literally believe that they are even capable of any type of heist.  The mishandled tone of the film and story is not helped at all by the presence of Owen Wilson, who seems maliciously miscast in the film.  Yes, he has a few moments of that type of sardonic charm and charisma that has made him a star, but he seems so laid back and nice that it's so impossible to believe that his characters is capable of double-cross.  Perhaps if he played his character more lean and mean (in amusing ways) like he did in BOTTLE ROCKET, then THE BIG BOUNCE would have had more energy and life.  Sarah Foster is a sight to see, but she too kind of plays the important fatale role on the wrong notes.  She seems too bubbly and sweet tempered to play an effective antagonist.  She’s got the look right, but her tone is ass-backwards. 

The rest of the characters seem like window dressing as well, and none of them appear to be interested or personally invested in any of the characters they are playing.  The great Gary Sinise is delegated to what appears to be a walk-on cameo and is so heinously underdeveloped that we have to slap ourselves upside the head to remind ourselves that he’s the bad guy.  Freeman also seems to deliver a disconnected performance as the Hawaiian judge.  He has a few good lines, especially one about his views on God, but he amounts to very little and his character’s transformation seems forced and not very credible.  Charlie Sheen seems to have a bit more fun with his character, and there is one sly scene that almost works on a level of self-satire with his previous (and notorious) philandering ways with women, but he too is not given much to do.  The actors, largely, seem to coast through this one. 

The film also is so lethargically paced that it felt long, even at 88 minutes.  Its seems to have no exposition and such a long and drawn out middle half that by the time we get to the conclusion our hearts just are not in it anymore.  A lot of the would-be comic moments just fall terribly flat (Bebe Neuwirth plays Sinise’s wife and is a drunk…that’s funny?)  So many other moments have pratfalls and laughs that would not even do justice to most modern and contrived sitcoms.  Any film with the great Owen Wilson should use his talent and not subdue it.  He is so hilarious in his previous comic roles, where his shyness and overt cockiness provide for big laughs, but here he’s wasted.  This, along with the fact that the film seems to be trying to work away from being a more risqué R rated film to a more audience friendly PG-13 caper undermines its intended effectiveness.  There are many moments were the director’s efforts to self- censor the film to tone it down becomes so incredibly obvious that you can see the actor’s lips say one vulgar word and have another cleaner word looped in overtop.  C’mon, that’s just sloppy! 

THE BIG BOUNCE lacks heart, wit, and that trademark style of Leonard’s that has made his other film adoptions work so well.  It's really a misguided effort and in the hands of a more capable and daring director and writer, it could have been something with more gusto.  Its leisurely and harmless, but that is the problem, because if you are going to make a crime caper about less-than-respectable human beings, then please don’t sanitize their characters to the point where it lacks credibility.   The film drifts in and out of focus and eventually loses its ability to make the audience a willing partner in the contrived caper.  You know you are in trouble when you watch a Leonard adaptation and the only things you start to care about are Foster’s bikini-clad figure and Hawaii’s tropical ambience. 

If I wanted T & A and hot locales, I would have rented EUROTRIP. 

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