Times Staff Writer

What’s a man to do when he’s got triplets who’ve been accepted to Yale, but he can’t afford to send them and no scholarships are in sight?

If he’s Alan Arkin, in the deliciously funny “Big Trouble” (at the Metro, Westwood), he’s going to listen very carefully to what Beverly D’Angelo has to say. Knocking back straight vodka and wearing little under a filmy peignoir, D’Angelo bewails the imminent loss of her husband--”His heart is surrounded by fat!” Insurance salesman Arkin has just the policy to ease her pain, a $5-million double-indemnity number, a percentage of which, in turn, will allow his sons to pursue their studies in classical music.

The beautiful part is that Peter Falk is D’Angelo’s husband, and it’s immediately clear to us that he’s in the pink of health, even if it isn’t to Arkin, who’s yet to lose his innocence entirely. Falk has a great entrance, pulling up to his Taraesque San Fernando Valley estate dressed like Frank Buck freshly returned from safari and with a truckload of Chinese in tow. The transatlantic illegal alien scam has its drawbacks, admits Falk. “We lose lots of people between malaria and beri-beri.”


Despite such outrageous remarks, “Big Trouble” is actually as gentle and low-key as “Ruthless People” is hard and raucous, yielding laughs rather than yocks. Falk’s Steve Rickey is at heart a lovable scoundrel who comes up with a new con every minute but wouldn’t intentionally harm a fly. As for D’Angelo, you might expect tongue-in-cheek for a lady named Blanche Rickey.

In “The In-Laws,” one of the funniest comedies of the ‘70s, Falk’s zany adventurer led astray Arkin’s sweetly square Manhattan dentist. Once again, Falk maintains a maddening calm as Arkin becomes progressively distraught. And just as Andrew Bergman wrote the duo’s first turn expressly for them, Warren Bogle’s script for “Big Trouble” has the same tailor-made feel to it, although “Big Trouble” is actually closer in spirit and scale to “Compromising Positions” than “The In-Laws.”

(That “Warren Bogle” credit is surely pseudonymous, and it can’t be coincidental that “Charles Bogle” was W.C. Fields’ most frequent writing pseudonym: Can it be the fine hand of Elaine May it’s covering here?)

But what makes “Big Trouble” so special is that it was directed, surprisingly enough, by John Cassavetes, who as a a director has gone his own idiosyncratic way for more than 20 years. “Big Trouble” is a far cry from the jagged, emotional experiences of “Faces” or “Husbands” or “A Woman Under the Influence” or “Love Streams.” He’s played by the rules here, yet as straightforward a comedy as “Big Trouble” is, his extraordinary rapport with actors and his spontaneity, especially with a quick, casual close-up, comes through.

That something extra, personal and quirky that Cassavetes brings to “Big Trouble” turns into a light and airy classic farce what so easily could have played, for all of “Bogle’s” inspired writing, as a conventional comedy. “Big Trouble” is crisp, polished and handsome, benefiting from Bill Butler’s clean camera work, Gene Callahan’s elegant production design and Bill Conti’s jaunty score.

As always, actors bloom under Cassavates’ loving guidance. With cascading blond tresses reminiscent of Cassavetes’ beautiful wife Gena Rowlands, Beverly D’Angelo has never looked so gorgeous--or seemed so funny. Cassavetes has struck comic sparks in the durably handsome and usually serious Robert Stack, who is wonderfully pompous as Arkin’s ultimate WASP boss. Charles Durning, Valerie Curtin and Richard Libertini--he was the Banana Republic dictator of “The In-Laws”--also contribute generously to the fun. As for Falk and Arkin, “Big Trouble” represents a career high point for both of them.


Ironically, “Big Trouble” (rated a rather harsh R; PG-13 would seem more appropriate) was in big trouble itself. It looked headed for limbo after some disappointing multiple-run test engagements but caught on in New York when it was booked in a single theater as a last-minute filler. Suddenly faced with an empty slot at the Metro, Pacific Theaters decided to take a chance with it, hoping that it will find audiences here appreciative of its screwball sophistication. ‘BIG TROUBLE’

A Columbia Pictures presentation of a Columbia-Delphi III production. Director John Cassavetes. Screenplay Warren Bogle. Camera Bill Butler. Music Bill Conti. Production designer Gene Callahan. Costumes Joe I. Tompkins. Stunt coordinator Gray Johnson. Film editors Donn Cambern, Ralph Winters. With Peter Falk, Alan Arkin, Bevery D’Angelo, Charles Durning, Robert Stack, Paul Dooley, Valerie Curtin, Richard Libertini.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.

MPAA rating: R (Under 17 requires an accompanying parent or adult guardian.)