This movie is all looks and no brains.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

In 1969 director Alex March and star Ryan O'Neal failed to make anything of Elmore Leonard's lightweight comedy caper, "The Big Bounce," and 2004's remake by director George Armitage and star Owen Wilson doesn't do much better. Maybe it's simply in the nature of the material that there's not enough to work with, I don't know. In any case, this latest adaptation comes across closer to a picture postcard of Hawaii than anything like the good, romantic heist film it should have been.

In fact, we don't have much of a heist in this heist film at all. The plot is presumably about the theft of some $200,000, but we wait and we wait for that caper to come off. When it finally does happen, sort of, it's in the last ten minutes of the picture, and it turns out not to be worth the wait. What's more, while there is no question about what happens at the end of the picture, there's still a big question about why it happens. So not even the finale pans out.

Anyway, Owen Wilson plays his stock, laid-back slacker character, the same character he's so carefully honed and nurtured these last few years in every movie he's been in, this time a fellow named Jack Ryan. No, not THAT Jack Ryan, not Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan. Clancy's Ryan actually came later. This Jack Ryan is an amiable petty crook and con man, the perfect role for Wilson, and, indeed, one that Wilson plays most charmingly. But, really, he needs a story to go along with his personality, which is what's missing in "The Big Bounce."

Jack will steal anything that isn't nailed down, but he admits he's never stolen anything worth than a few hundred dollars. He's strictly small-time, never uses a gun, and never hurts anybody. He's a "good" bad guy, like Paul Newman's Butch Cassidy, a sweet, sympathetic antihero. Only Newman's antihero had a script full of amusing action for him to participate in. But not here.

Jack's working for a construction company in Hawaii when the movie opens, but he's fired when he smacks a boss with a baseball bat for trying to attack him. After that incident, which gets into the Island newspapers, he's immediately befriended by Walter Crewes (Morgan Freeman), the District Judge, and Nancy Hayes (Sara Foster), the beautiful mistress of the construction company's nefarious owner, Ray Ritchie (Gary Sinise). Just why they befriend this deadbeat is a mystery until the very close of the picture. As I say, everything is saved until the end, by which time most viewers will have turned the whole thing off.

The Judge owns a small collection of resort bungalows and asks Jack to tend to them as a general handyman. Nancy is attracted to criminal types and senses a lawlessness in Jack that she likes. So, while Jack is off duty from the bungalows, he and Nancy go off merrily stealing cars and breaking into people's houses together, just for the fun of it. Sweet.

Meanwhile, Nancy tells Jack that they can steal the aforementioned two-hundred grand off Ritchie, because she knows where he hides it. She also knows that Ritchie is in bankruptcy, and it's money he uses to bribe local gangsters to help him clear people off their land to build his hotels, so he won't be going to the police to report the money missing. Together, Jack and Nancy plan to scam the boss.

But it almost never comes. Not even the planning is discussed much in the story. Instead, we get a series of misadventures involving the stolen cars and assorted extraneous peripheral characters and a whole lot of scenery. That's right, scenery. We expect scenery in Hawaii, but we expect it as a part of the background to a story. Instead, about every two minutes this movie grinds to a halt to show us scenes of surfers and surfing, or waves crashing on the beach, or mountains and rain forests, for no apparent reason. This is the first movie I can remember in a long while that is almost literally all filler and no content.

Among the supporting cast we get Charlie Sheen as Bob Rogers, Jr., one of Ritchie's flunkies, who also has the hots for Nancy. When the boss is out of town, he creeps around her, but she's got Jack, too, so she's fending them off right and left. Then there's Bebe Neuwirth as Alison Ritchie, the big boss's wife. Country singer/songwriter Willie Nelson plays Joe Lurie, part of the island police. And the dean of Hollywood character actors, Harry Dean Stanton, plays Bob Rogers, Sr., Bob Jr.'s dad. But none of these people, as good actors as they are, have much to do with the story as it unfolds. They are simply "there," looking mostly lost and bewildered. One could say their talent is wasted. In fact, I will say it. Again. Their talent is wasted.

In spirit, at least, this movie reminded me a lot of Frank Sinatra's old film, "Ocean's 11," where he and his pals got together and made a movie that must have been far more fun to perform in than it was to watch. The actors in "The Big Bounce" seem to be having a good time; they even seem to be improvising many of their lines. But just looking at people having a good time isn't very entertaining for an audience.

And where does all this leave one of my favorite actors, Morgan Freeman? Lost, most of the time, like everybody else in the film. He plays a pleasant-enough chap, the Judge, but he's hardly in the picture until the very end. As I say, a waste, really.

This movie is all looks and no brains.

I am convinced that movie studios are out to frustrate videophiles. It seems almost perverse that nine times out of ten, the worse the movie is, the better the video quality. This disc is a good example. The widescreen size closely approximates its theatrical-exhibition dimensions at a 1.17:1 anamorphic ratio; and the bit rate is quite high, rendering the colors rich, deep, dark, and solid, with object delineation sharp and precise. Moiré effects, wavy lines and such, are largely absent, as are halos, extraneous grain, and other artifacts of the digital transfer process. It is, simply put, a great-looking picture.

Warners' Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix puts most of the sound in the front three channels and leaves very little for the side or rear. We do hear a little in the way of bird noises, waves crashing, and musical ambience reinforcement from the surrounds, but it's not enough to make one much aware of it. Still, the fronts are a different story, where the sound makes its presence known through strong, clean dynamics, an ample stereo spread, and a wide frequency response. With the exception of the music, though, there isn't really a lot for the sound system to do, in any case.

The disc includes the usual things and less. Mainly, there are three featurettes, but no audio commentary. The first featurette is called "The Big Bounce: A Con in the Making," a twelve-minute promo wherein the stars and filmmakers discuss how much fun they had making the film. The second featurette is "Wicked Waves," an eight-minute compilation of stunt-surfer outtakes. And the third featurette is "Surfing the Pipeline," three minutes of surfing in the Aloha State. The extras conclude with twenty-four scene selections and a widescreen theatrical trailer. Warner Bros. provide English and French for spoken languages; and English, French, and Spanish for subtitles.

Parting Shots:
"Get Shorty," "Jackie Brown," and "Joe Kidd" are a few of the more successful film adaptations of Elmore Leonard stories; but "The Big Bounce" has so far proved a more elusive proposition. In two tries, it's got two strikes against it.

Maybe a stronger script, with more emphasis on characterizations and plot turns and less attention on incidental locales and irrelevant filler would have helped. Or maybe Wilson was the wrong choice this time to carry the picture, given his overly relaxed, typecast manner. There's nothing openly wrong or offensive about the picture; it just never builds any momentum and dies in its tracks. Too bad; I love Freeman, even when he's not doing anything.


Film Value