Los Angeles Times

'The Big Bounce'

There may once have been a real movie rattling inside the empty studio package known as "The Big Bounce," but no longer. That's too bad. Based on the 1969 crime novel by Elmore Leonard, the film was directed by George Armitage, whose slim résumé includes a couple of prime pulp entertainments, including the darkly funny "Grosse Pointe Blank" and the feloniously underrated adaptation of Charles Willeford's "Miami Blues."

From the evidence of his previous films, Armitage has an affinity for shaggy-dog, comically inflected pulp, which would make a movie marriage between him and our reigning bard of criminal cool seem ideal. The story for "The Big Bounce," which was first turned into a movie in 1969 with Ryan O'Neal, hinges on a charming ex-con named Jack Ryan who drifts into romance and larcenous intrigue while hanging around a resort area. (Michigan in the book, Hawaii in the film.) As played by Owen Wilson with a minimum of affect and a nasal drone, this Ryan comes across like a lazy cabana boy with gigolo aspirations, a guy who doesn't pursue either women or opportunities but isn't at all surprised when they come knocking.

Given the genre, the woman and opportunity that come knocking are very shady indeed. The woman is a sexpot called Nancy (Sara Foster) and the opportunity is a thug named Ray Ritchie (Gary Sinise), a real-estate developer with a wife (Bebe Neuwirth), a toady (Charlie Sheen) and several hundred grand lying in wait. The sexpot, the thug, the jackpot and Jack seem time-coded to combust, but for some reason Armitage and screenwriter Sebastian Gutierrez (who wrote "Gothika") take so long to get the story in gear that the film is almost over before the narcoleptic action kicks in. By the time it does, Nancy has repeatedly shed her clothes, Morgan Freeman has swanned by a couple of times and all trace of Leonard fizz and fun has been washed away by many, many shots of surfers.

Why? I haven't a clue and neither does Leonard. "I can't figure out what it's about," the writer recently told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "They keep cutting away to surfers, which has nothing to do with the story."

Given the thinness of the original novel, though, which is light on incident and heavy on description and character, it's not surprising Armitage lavishes so much attention on the surfers, the scenery and especially Foster, who looks very fetching with and without clothes. (It doesn't explain the film's cheap, jury-rigged feel, alas.) That her character registers closer to a beach bimbo than a femme fatale is probably not Foster's fault. Unlike Wilson and Freeman, both of whom have a knack for surviving mishaps like this, she never gets to be in on the joke.

'The Big Bounce'MPAA rating: PG-13, for sexual content and nudity, violence and languageTimes guidelines: Female nudity, mild language, some bloody violenceOwen Wilson...Jack RyanMorgan Freeman...Walter CrewesGary Sinise...Ray RitchieSara Foster...Nancy HayesWillie Nelson...Joe Lurie Shangri-la Entertainment presents a Material Films production, released by Warner Bros. Pictures. Director George Armitage. Screenwriter Sebastian Gutierrez. From the novel by Elmore Leonard. Producer Steve Bing. Director of photography Jeffrey L. Kimball. Production designer Stephen Altman. Editors Brian Berdan, Barry Malkin. Music George S. Clinton. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes. In general release.

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