Playful Film Overcomes Trouble With Its Plot and Timing

"Big Trouble" has been in nothing but big trouble. Not for what it is but for a situation it inadvertently found itself enmeshed in that it's now trying to escape.

"Big Trouble" is a pleasant diversion, a lightly amusing criminal comedy with a plot so complicated even the people in it can't quite believe what's happening. It's based on a novel by Dave Barry, one of America's truly funny columnists, and it's directed by Barry Sonnenfeld, who did "Get Shorty" and "Men in Black." So far, no trouble.

Unfortunately, one of the film's manic moments has two of the dumbest criminals imaginable hoodwinking overworked airport security personnel and getting both a handgun and an enormous nuclear device onto a plane. Not the best of luck for a film that was scheduled to go into theaters just days after Sept. 11. That scene may never play the way it was intended, but now that "Big Trouble" is finally being released, it can otherwise stand on its own as a playful trifle that feels so much like a genial knockoff of "Get Shorty" that it might as well be called "Get Shorter."

In addition to director Sonnenfeld, both films share a pair of featured actors (Rene Russo and Dennis Farina) as well as a droll sensibility filtered through assorted high livers and low lifes, hit men who believe in manners, rent-a-cops who can't tell a squirt gun from the real thing and desperate people "tired of living from foot to mouth."

On the debit side, non-charismatic star Tim Allen, who plays newspaper-columnist-turned- advertising-man Eliot Arnold, will never be mistaken for John Travolta. On the other hand, "Get Shorty" didn't have this film's psychedelic toad, an impressive animal, well worth the three "toad puppeteers" it employs, able to spray whoever's handy with a potent liquid hallucinogen.

Novelist Barry said he got the core idea for "Big Trouble," which shares a fondness for Florida gothic with the works of Carl Hiaasen, when his son was in a game that demanded a nighttime squirt gun attack.

"I started," he says, "with what would happen if kids showed up to squirt the kid in the house at the same time professional killers, hit men, showed up really to kill the owner of the house." That would be Arthur Herk (an energized Stanley Tucci), described as "one of the few Floridians not confused when he voted for Pat Buchanan."

His stepdaughter and "Ghost World" refugee Jenny (Zooey Deschanel) is supposed to be squirted by Eliot's son Matt (Ben Foster), which is how Eliot (upgraded from an ordinary scribe to a Pulitzer Prize winner by writers Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone) ends up meeting Jenny's long-suffering but still attractive mother, Anna (Russo).

Also involved in the madness are the law-breakers, exasperated $25,000-a-pop hit man Henry (Farina) and the two most cretinous criminals in the greater Miami area, Snake (Tom Sizemore) and Eddie (MTV's Johnny Knoxville), bad guys of such limited brainpower they can't figure out how to deal with the "Departures/Arrivals" sign at the airport.

With criminals you get lawmen, in this case Janeane Garofalo and Patrick Warburton as overmatched Miami cops and Omar Epps and Dwight "Heavy D" Myers as FBI men in awe of the powers they have under "Special Executive Order 768-dash-04."

Add to this mix a blissed-out space cadet named Puggy (Jason Lee), who moved to Miami for the Fritos; a gorgeous maid named Nina (Sofia Vergara); two laconic Russian arms dealers; and one very powerful weapon and you have the kind of continual chaos Sonnenfeld is especially adept at orchestrating.

That doesn't even get into Martha Stewart, the Discovery Channel and that trouble-making toad, all of which have key parts to play in the film's brisk 85 minutes. "The longer I stay around here," someone says, "the weirder it gets." He's got that right.

MPAA rating: PG-13, for language, crude humor and sex-related material. Times guidelines: It's all in good fun.

'Big Trouble'

Tim Allen...Eliot Arnold

Omar Epps...Seitz

Dennis Farina...Henry

Ben Foster...Matt Arnold

Janeane Garofalo...Monica Romero

Jason Lee...Puggy

Rene Russo...Anna Herk

Tom Sizemore...Snake

Stanley Tucci...Arthur Herk

A Jacobson Co. and Sonnenfeld/Josepson Worldwide Entertainment production, released by Touchstone Pictures. Director Barry Sonnenfeld. Producers Barry Sonnenfeld, Barry Josephson, Tom Jacobson. Executive producer Jim Wedaa. Screenplay Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone, based on the novel by Dave Barry. Cinematographer Gregg Gardiner. Editor Steven Weisberg. Costumes Mary Vogt. Music James Newton Howard. Production design Garreth Stover. Art director Mark Harrington. Set decorator Cindy Carr. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes.

In general release.

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