This review was corrected on March 28, 2002.
A genially amusing ensemble farce that doesn’t quite achieve enough momentum for liftoff, “Big Trouble” is an easy-to-take, easier-to-forget trifle that, unfortunately, likely will be best remembered as a footnote to terrible events far beyond the control of the talent involved. Originally screened for critics early last fall, pic was bumped from scheduled September 2001 release within hours of the 9/11 horrors, as Disney decision-makers figured auds wouldn’t be in right mood for a comedy that climaxes with the smuggling of a suitcase-size nuclear weapon aboard a commercial aircraft. Now slotted for April 5 wide release, “Big Trouble” should post respectable but unspectacular B.O. numbers before finding wider acceptance as cable and homevid product.
It’s debatable, of course, whether enough time has passed for ticket-buyers to accept gags that, pre-9/11, would have seemed innocuous. In addition to playing the bomb-in-a-suitcase card, “Big Trouble” goes for laughs by showing how comically easy it might be to smuggle a gun past airport security guards. There’s also a squirm-inducing moment during a conversation between a Miami cop (Janeane Garofalo) and two FBI agents (Omar Epps, Dwight “Heavy D” Myers) — the cop makes the assumption that no one has ever triggered a nuclear weapon within the U.S. and the agents exchange a nervous glance.
Based on a novel by humorist Dave Barry, “Big Trouble” tends to shamble instead of sprint during opening scenes that introduce characters destined to intersect in and around Miami. Eliot Arnold (Tim Allen), a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for the Miami Herald, loses his job after an explosive encounter with his boss. Since there would be no movie if he simply went to work for another newspaper, Eliot is quickly reduced to working in advertising and — much worse, in the eyes of teen son Matt (Ben Foster) — driving a totally uncool Geo.
The complications begin when Arthur Herk (Stanley Tucci), a corrupt businessman, arouses the ire of his even more corrupt superiors by threatening to expose their dirty dealings. (A nice touch: Arthur is described as “one of the few Floridians who was not confused when he voted for George W. Bush.”) So the superiors call a couple of hit men (Dennis Farina, Jack Kehler), who arrive at Herk’s home on the very same evening that Matt plans to “ambush” Herk’s lovely teen stepdaughter, Jenny (Zooey Deschanel), with a water squirt gun. (The ambush is part of an ongoing game, not a criminal assault.)
The hit men miss their target and escape, but Matt is apprehended by an odd couple of cops (Garofalo, Patrick Warburton). When Eliot arrives at the Herk home to claim his son, he’s instantly attracted to Anna (Rene Russo), Herk’s trophy wife. The attraction is mutual, but Herk doesn’t notice: He’s too distracted by his comely maid, Nina (Sofia Vergara), who in turn is attracted to Puggy (Jason Lee), a spacey drifter who has taken up temporary residence in a tree.
Meanwhile, on the other side of town: Snake, a dumb petty crook who claims he is “tired of living foot to mouth,” joins forces with the even dumber Eddie (Johnny Knoxville) to rob a seedy bar that doubles as a front for international arms dealers. Unfortunately, the bungling robbers grab a suitcase that contains the aforementioned nuclear weapon. Further complications arise, FBI agents arrive on the scene — and everybody winds up at an airport where the security is singularly lax.
Working from a cleverly constructed screenplay adaptation by Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, director Barry Sonnenfeld takes a while to get “Big Trouble” into the right groove of straight-faced, steadily escalating wackiness. After things start rolling, the pic earns chuckles, and a few hearty guffaws, but without delivering the inspired insanity that separates diverting time-killers from truly memorable (and, yes, potently commercial) comedies.
Allen, Garofalo and Warburton give relatively subdued perfs, and their understatement serves them, and pic as a whole, quite well. Crafty scene-stealing pros Farina and Sizemore hit the right notes of seriocomic menace, but Tucci overplays his character’s sleaziness and strains too obviously for cheap laughs. Russo appears oddly tentative, as though she never managed to get a handle on her role. Lee is engagingly sweet in an underwritten part. Among other supporting players, Epps and Myers make strongest impressions as anxious feds.
Kudos go to lenser Greg Gardiner, production designer Garreth Stover and costumer Mary Vogt for their aptly exaggerated evocations of various Miami socioeconomic strata. Pic makes funny visual and aural allusions to “Miami Vice,” right down to using the same moody-spooky Phil Collins tune, “In the Air Tonight,” employed so effectively in the TV series’ pilot.
By the way: Future film buffs will have to take care lest they confuse this “Big Trouble” with 1985 comedy of same title, the last pic completed by director John Cassavetes.