Rick Moranis and Tom Arnold pair up well as comic nemeses in “Big Bully,” an OK concept that’s executed decently, if without any real spark or invention. Word of mouth won’t carry this middling effort far past opening weekend, though it’ll do nicely in ancillary markets.
Opening flashes back to circa 1970 Hastings, Minn., an idyllic small burg — for everyone except 10-year-old Davey (Justin Jon Ross), a bookworm type endlessly tormented by chunky classmate Roscoe, aka “Fang” (Michael Zwiener). When the former’s parents announce a family move, he’s delighted; he also takes the opportunity this escape provides to fink on Fang, whom he knows stole an astronaut-retrieved moon rock from a school display. That revenge will come back to haunt Davey later.
Twenty-five years later, to be exact. Divorced, with a troubled preteen son of his own and a fledgling literary career, grown-up David (Moranis) accepts an offer to teach creative writing at his former middle school. But offspring Ben (Blake Bashoff) immediately starts bullying a smaller classmate — and that kid’s father is, natch, adult Roscoe (Arnold).
Henpecked at home, scorned by students (he now teaches machine shop), Roscoe seems defeated in life. But with David’s return, Fang wakes up; long-buried bullying impulses turn sad sack into zesty sadist.
After setup, writer Mark Steven Johnson (of “Grumpy Old Men,” a not dissimilar idea) escalates his screenplay briskly — maybe too briskly — from malicious pranks to a climactic standoff atop a raging waterfall. In the end, these juvenile-acting adults are straightened out by their kids, who have already grown up enough to bury the hatchet.
Johnson and director Steve Miner (“My Father, the Hero,””Forever Young”) toss in some amusing, if underdeveloped, peripherals: a brief talkshow parody, thumbnail sketches of neurotic students and teaching staff, a few bright lines and a funny payoff for David’s treacly neighbors that suggests the more anarchic black comedy “Big Bully” chooses to avoid. But they don’t pull anything surprising from the central circumstance, which quickly settles into an exercise in rather ordinary slapstick.
Though they’d certainly have gotten further with better material, Moranis makes a pleasantly imperiled hero, and Arnold (happily eschewing the all-too-real obnoxiousness he displayed as another lout in “Nine Months”) gets good mileage from the switch between schlub and glint-eyed nasty. Support players don’t get much to work with, particularly Julianne Phillips, as David’s rote, glam love interest, and a welcome but wasted Carol Kane (Roscoe’s shrewish wife). Comic vet Don Knotts, barely recognizable and quite restrained, gets his first major outing in some time as the school principal.
Tech package is slick.