- The Washington Times - Friday, April 5, 2002

"Big Trouble" may be a jinxed title. It adorned a John Cassavetes stab at comedy in 1986 that barely surfaced in theaters a marital murder farce with Alan Arkin, Peter Falk and Beverly D'Angelo. Now it returns as director Barry Sonnenfeld's movie version of humorist Dave Barry's first novel, published in 1998.

A screwball farce about several sets of characters on a collision course in Miami, the new film ran into an unforeseen commercial roadblock. Originally scheduled to open Sept. 21 last year, it was postponed as a consequence of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The decision seemed wise indeed, a no-brainer.

The finale envisions a nuclear device, smuggled into the United States from the former Soviet arsenal, passing through porous security checkpoints at the Miami-Dade County Airport and threatening to detonate in a small passenger plane headed for the Bahamas.

Half a year later, the objectionable aspects of the near-catastrophe with which Mr. Barry and Mr. Sonnenfeld trifle are back in proportion: The payoff is grotesquely out of scale for this particular exercise in throwaway, ensemble farce, but it doesn't seem to mock a genuine calamity and mood of apprehension.

To the extent that this hit-and-miss enterprise possesses a functioning plot, it could be resolved in a variety of ways that simply ignore the existence of airports or weapons of mass destruction.

At its most entertaining and proficient, "Big Trouble" operates as a showcase for teamwork. The most indispensable team consists of Dennis Farina and Jack Kehler as mob assassins, Henry and Leonard, in from New Jersey to liquidate a chiseling bagman called Arthur Herk, played by Stanley Tucci. Their marksmanship goes awry as a result of intrusive bystanders, transforming the Herk hit into a running gag.

The foul-tempered and faithless Arthur has alienated a wife named Anna, played by Rene Russo. She is attracted to Tim Allen as Mr. Barry's nominal alter ego, a former Miami Herald columnist named Eliot Arnold who has gone into the advertising business.

Anna and Eliot, a divorced father, meet because their teen-age children, Zooey Deschanel as Jenny Herk and Ben Foster as Matt Arnold, are high school classmates and potential sweethearts. I suppose it's not out of the realm of possibility that the parents and children will be double-dating after the fade-out.

The nuclear device, which several characters liken to a garbage disposal, is housed in a large, heavy metal trunk. It is stashed for a time at a slum bar operated basically as a weapons storehouse by two Russian emigres, Daniel London as John and Lars Arentz Hansen as Leo.

A pair of low-grade thieves, Tom Sizemore as Snake and Johnny Knoxville as Eddie, stake out the bar and steal the trunk. Local law enforcement enters in the guise of Miami cops Monica Romero and Walter Kramitz, played by Janeane Garofalo and Patrick Warburton. They prove largely wasted assets, I'm sorry to report. The feds, interested strictly in the nuclear caper, are represented with impressive hard-boiled authority by Dwight "Heavy D" Myers as Greer and Omar Epps as his partner, Seitz.

This more or less accounts for the many twosomes of "Big Trouble." Jason Lee wanders around as a serene hippie called Puggy who charms the Herks' comely Hispanic maid, Nina, played by Sofia Vergara. They function as romantic match No. 3 when the filmmakers have time to update that subplot. Puggy is arguably more useful for lugging around the bomb trunk at gunpoint.

Clearly, it's the frustrated but humorously reliable hit men and the adroit, wisecracking G-men who keep the show from collapsing of its ragged continuity and scatterbrained weightlessness.

The Farina-Kehler and Myers-Epps teams are good enough to justify return engagements. It's almost too easy to envision the latter dogging Ice Cube and Mike Epps as the comic felons of the coincidental Miami crime farce "All About the Benjamins."

Demonstrating how brainstorms seem to be contagious in the Hollywood screenwriting fraternity, "Big Trouble" is also keen on the image of Benjamin Franklin on $100 bills. It could be justifiably titled "Even More About the Benjamins."

Mr. Tucci never gets a proper partner, but he is deliberately overmatched with several things for comic effect: Nina's toes, a toad that spritzes him, a family mutt that seems to possess the face of Martha Stewart, and a heavy metal shelf to which he has been handcuffed.

The wittiest sneak effect is a voice-over team that consists of Mr. Sonnenfeld and screenwriter-director David Koepp, evidently participating on a lark. They impersonate the one-track-mind caller and host, respectively, on a sports radio show devoted to trivia about the University of Florida football team. This element may have a special appeal in Washington now that former Gators' coach Steve Spurrier has arrived to redeem the Redskins.

Henry and Leonard encounter the show while sitting in a rental car and casing the Russian saloon.

The more sophisticated Henry is astounded by the inanity of the exchange, suggesting that New Jersey sports talk must be relatively erudite, but then everything might be when measured against Gatormania of the sort mocked in the best moments of "Big Trouble."

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