“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.