Falling Flat

Lame acting and a thin plotline mean trouble in paradise for `The Big Bounce.'

January 30, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The Big Bounce takes much of its deadpan plot, characters and dialogue from an Elmore Leonard novel about love and friendship among scam artists and thieves, then transfers it all from a Michigan resort to the North Shore of Oahu, where big waves, surfers and bathing beauties can be used as visual palate-cleansers.

Hawaii is not a bad place to be this time of year, but the tension between a genial drifter (Owen Wilson) and a beach-bunny femme fatale (Sara Foster), who coerces him to help her rip off his ex-employer and her sometime sex partner and keeper (Gary Sinise), evaporates in the tropical climate. The movie, brief though it is, feels as padded as a travelogue.

Looking like Robert Redford's broken-nosed delinquent son from Redford's grubby Little Fauss and Big Halsy days, Wilson has a built-in squint and delayed-reaction style that makes his character's specialty - swiftly sucker-punching bigger opponents, whether with a baseball bat or a tree branch or just his fist - funny every time. Still, Wilson is basically a fey re-actor; that's why he was so effective paired with that mighty mite Jackie Chan in Shanghai Noon and in small roles like Ben Stiller's preppie rival in Meet the Parents. Pair him up with an ex-model turned actress like the inept Foster and you have a void at the center of the picture.

Limited though he is, Wilson at least knows how to act blase; Foster, long on limb and short on presence, gets there by default. Her way of acting kittenish as he introduces her to the joys of breaking and entering is to hang on his back like his kindergarten buddy on a field trip. (The title refers to the high she gets from law-breaking.) Much of the time she sounds bored and surly, but without the kicky individuality of the young Lauren Bacall (that earlier model turned actress).

When Wilson says that a third character could see their "chemistry," you think, "I'm glad someone could."

The director, George Armitage, did fine work with Jennifer Jason Leigh (and Alec Baldwin and Fred Ward) in Miami Blues, but here actresses are not his forte. When that dark-haired, porcelain-skinned comedian Bebe Neuwirth enters the picture as Sinise's sloshed wife, she looks cruelly out of place, and she has next to nothing to play.

Sinise snarls his way through the role of a sleazy rest-estate developer, and the determined-to-be-colorful supporting cast includes Morgan Freeman as the district judge and small-resort owner who hires Wilson as a handyman, Charlie Sheen as the developer's butter-fingered right-hand man, and Vinnie Jones as his thuggish foreman. Willie Nelson and Harry Dean Stanton also show up, primarily as Freeman's domino buddies.

With the change from Michigan to Hawaii and some major alterations in Leonard's storytelling (especially in the final chapters), Armitage wants to present the North Shore of Oahu as a place where eccentrics can be themselves and put on the whole straight world, like a beach-side saloon extended island-wide. But the closest The Big Bounce comes to conjuring a South Pacific subdivision of Margaritaville is to make you feel that 90 minutes are just semi-pleasantly wasting away.

The Big Bounce

Starring Owen Wilson, Morgan Freeman, and Sara Foster

Directed by George Armitage

Rated PG-13

Released by Warner Bros.

Time 90 minutes

Sun Score **

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