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BIG TROUBLE

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“Big Trouble” is certainly what Barry Sonnenfeld’s new picture was in last fall. It was scheduled for release on September 21, but Touchstone yanked it after the events of 9/11. Not that he picture is actually about terrorism–it’s a complicated slapstick farce involving a gaggle of interrelated denizens of Miami Beach (along with a few visitors). But one of the major plot points is a powerful suitcase bomb that ultimately finds its way aboard a plane, along with some highjackers. The bomb’s nothing more than what Hitchcock used to term a MacGuffin, the key to the action that nobody watching really cares about. But given the presence of highjackers, aircraft and explosives in the narrative, it was thought that it would be a mite tasteless to release the picture so shortly after the World Trade Center disaster.

That was undoubtedly a wise decision, but in reality “Big Trouble” would be tasteless under any circumstances. Based on a book by humorist Dave Berry, it aims to be a quirky, offbeat ensemble comedy, filled with madcap characters and interlocking narrative threads. But Sonnenfeld’s touch fails him this time around; instead of matching the pleasingly weird tone of his “Get Shorty,” which used similarly strange material to excellent effect, the picture instead resembles the frantic, sprawling mess he made of “The Wild Wild West.” The result, sad to say, isn’t much better than last summer’s raucous, unfunny “Rat Race.”

The plot of “Big Trouble” is meant to be the equivalent of a Rube Goldberg contraption, in which unlikely elements connect in a complicated unit that hums along with surprising, laugh-inducing smoothness. In this case, though, the structure is so ramshackle and arbitrary that what’s happening has to be laboriously explained to the audience by star Tim Allen, in a running narration that’s a constant signal of creative desperation. (Even the feel-good finale has to be explicated via voice-over.) If the script had been fashioned with skill, it would have told its story through action instead of endless words; alas, it wasn’t and doesn’t.

It would be a fool’s errand to try to disentangle the complicated plot devised by Barry and his adapters. Suffice it to say that it involves a harried father (Allen) and his moody teen son (Ben Foster); a crooked businessman (Stanley Tucci), his dissatisfied wife (Rene Russo) and her angst- ridden daughter (Zooey Deschanel), along with a luscious maid (Sofia Vergara) the husband is bedding; two mob hitmen (Dennis Farina and Jack Kehler); a couple of mismatched cops (Patrick Warburton and Janeane Garofalo); two bumbling would-be robbers (Tom Sizemore and Johnny Knoxville); a pair of ultra-cool FBI agents (Omar Epps and Dwight “Heavy D” Myers); an overzealous security guard (Andy Richter); and an addled hippie who lives in trees (Jason Lee)–among others. It’s the businessman’s effort to extricate himself from a threatening situation that sets the plot into motion, with disastrous effects for everybody–including, unfortunately, the audience.

To be fair, there are sporadically amusing moments in “Big Trouble”–with a cast so varied and talented, how could there not be? Farina, in particular, gets good mileage out of his usual shtick as a mobster loudly irritated by the incompetence around him, and Garofalo, Warburton, Richter and Myers nab occasional chuckles. Foster shows once again that he has an amiable screen presence, and Russo, while hardly outstanding, appears to better advantage than in the recent De Niro-Murphy dud “Showtime.” But all of the material featuring the usually adept Tucci and Sizemore is forced and clumsy, and Allen’s klutzy dad shtick is becoming tiresome indeed. Technically the picture has the bright, overlit look common to so many mediocre comedies.

There’s one line in “Big Trouble” with which audiences will be able to sympathize. It’s spoken by Deschanel at a point when things are getting nasty between her parents. “I’m going to my room, where it’s not–I don’t know–stupid,” she remarks. It’s a sound decision, and prospective viewers of this haphazard, misbegotten picture might do well to follow her example.

THE MOTHMAN PROPHECIES

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“The Mothman Prophecies” is about a weird, giant winged being that supposedly appears to selected humans as a portent of coming disaster. It’s obvious the creature is purely mythic: if it actually existed, it would surely have shown up to warn us about this catastrophic movie. Richard Hatem’s script is a total muddle which will prove as frustrating to audiences as “Vanilla Sky.” It might have served for one of the more mediocre episodes of “The X-Files”–those you invariably click off in reruns–but as the basis of a feature film, it’s hopelessly inadequate.

That’s especially unfortunate given that “Prophecies” is directed by Mark Pellington, whose sophomore feature, “Arlington Road” (1999), was a pretty neat little paranoid thriller despite its implausibilities, with canny direction that accentuated its strengths while minimizing its weaknesses. Pellington (aided by cinematographer Fred Murphy and editor Brian Berdan) still shows a knack for generating suspense and unease, and even in a chaotic hodgepodge like this his skill is sporadically apparent: there are sequences throughout the film that build a real sense of menace, and the big set-pieces–a car crash, and especially the climactic calamity–are extraordinarily well staged and shot.

But all the helming tricks in the world can’t conceal the messiness of the narrative. Hatem’s script is based on an episode that occurred in Point Pleasant, West Virginia, on the eastern bank of the Ohio River, in 1966-67, and served as the basis for John A. Keel’s non-fiction book of 1975. But the plot is largely fictionalized: the writer has chosen to unfold the story through the eyes of an invented character, a Washington Post reporter named John Klein (Richard Gere), whose wife Mary (Debra Messing) dies shortly after catching a glimpse of the titular prophet of doom (why she should have received such a vision is unclear, as is much else here). Two years later John is magically whisked (in a scene uncomfortably reminiscent of a much better one in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”) to Point Pleasant, where he’s drawn into the lives of townsfolk who are having unexplained hallucinations involving both him (or somebody who looks like him) and a creature of the sort his late spouse claimed to have seen, and gets romantically attached to a local cop (Laura Linney). All sorts of odd and threatening incidents follow, presented in an annoyingly fragmentary and disjointed form; having John told by an anguished scholar (Alan Bates) who once researched the “mothman” phenomenon that it can’t be understood rationally isn’t really a satisfying excuse for all the nonsense we have to endure. The plot culminates in a major catastrophe, based on an actual event, which is supposed to tie everything together; but though the sequence is beautifully mounted, it leaves a multitude of loose ends dangling on the screen: the denouement, while spectacular, is ultimately insufficient to salvage what’s preceded it.

The actors seem lost in the debris. Gere looks dour and stunned through most of the picture (as well he might), and Linney, so memorable when graced with the incisive material Kenneth Lonergan gave her in “You Can Count on Me,” is a pallid cipher here. Will Patton does his familiar wild-eyed oddball routine as a tormented townie–the audience can sympathize with his expressions of bewilderment and discontent–while Bates follows in the line of distinguished actors who all too frequently show up in ludicrous stuff like this to lend an air of false gravity to the obligatory role of the eccentric fellow who explains the unbelievable truth to the incredulous hero (it may give him a fat paycheck, but will always serve as a blight on his resume). Messing cuts a glamorous figure as Klein’s unlucky wife, but her efforts are hampered by the puerile necking sequence toward the beginning, intended to show the couple’s deep affection but coming across as forced and silly, and by the soap opera hospital scenes she has to struggle through further on.

All told, the curious episode of the Point Pleasant catastrophe might have served as the basis for an installment of one of those docudrama TV shows that explore unsolved mysteries and supposedly supernatural phenomena, but translated into the fictionalized form it’s been given here, the story seems, paradoxically, both formulaic and incoherent. “The Mothman Prophecies” may eventually be remembered as an unfortunate blip in Mark Pellington’s career, if he’s given the opportunities he deserves; as of now, though, it’s merely the sort of misbegotten mess that studios regularly dump into the January doldrums.