Big Trouble
Credit: Big Trouble: Robert Zuckerman

Humorist Dave Barry specializes in the comedy of calamitous inevitability: His books and syndicated columns exult in comfortable exasperation with the everyday inanity that trips up ordinary people — car problems, kid troubles, junk-mail woes — heated to a temperature of outsize spluttering by the grilling sun of his hometown Miami.

Director Barry Sonnenfeld exults in comedies built on inevitable calamity: In hits like Get Shorty, Men in Black, and The Addams Family, he excels at steering larger-than-life characters through increasingly extreme situations chilled to the temperature of matter-of-factness by his Hollywood cool.

In Big Trouble, the two split the difference. And the results run hot and cold. The story, based on Barry’s 1999 novel of the same name and adapted (with some made-for-the-movies coarseness) by screenwriters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone, is about a divorced Miami newspaper columnist trying to relate to his sullen teenage son. Well, about that, and about an obnoxious tycoon with a disgusted wife and stepdaughter, a couple of pretty smart New Jersey hitmen, a couple of pretty dumb criminals, a couple of harried cops, a couple of ruthless FBI agents, a moonbeamy hippie who lives in a tree, and a sunshiny Peruvian maid. Among others. Barry’s point, I think, is that it’s hard to be a family, but worth the trouble.

Sonnenfeld’s point, on the other hand, is that there’s nothing funnier than characters operating on different speeds, crashing into each other. The filmmaker couldn’t care less about the particulars of a struggling father (Tim Allen) and son (Ben Foster) or a rich, bored mother (Rene Russo) and her daughter (Zooey Deschanel), trapped in a hideous marriage to a braying, cigar-chomping, arms-dealing kingpin (Stanley Tucci) named Arthur Herk. When Dennis Farina and Jack Kehler, as street-smart hitmen, arrive from New Jersey to knock off said Herk, Sonnenfeld nails the comic mysteries of geographic difference with sharp details about cigars, steak, even driving styles.

There are stretches of big fun in ”Big Trouble,” and little pleasures too: Deschanel delivers every one of her lines with perfect teenager-stink-bomb aim; Tom Sizemore, as a dumb stick-up man, does a nice reversal on his recent roles as reliable soldier; and Janeane Garofalo and Patrick Warburton, as he-said-she-said cops, enliven every room they galumph into. But there are too many distracting, ungainly stretches of too little fun, particularly involving Martha Stewart, the Discovery Channel, Fritos, and toe sucking.

And there’s one moment when Barry and Sonnenfeld, who both love too-muchness, go too far in ways they couldn’t have known would be so explosive. ”Big Trouble” was scheduled to be released soon after Sept. 11, but was held back out of sensitivity about a subplot concerning a hijacking. In fact, the sight of a nuclear bomb making its way through an airport security check is even more hideously funny now—a black laugh for which nothing in Barry’s columns or Sonnenfeld’s oeuvre could have ever prepared us. B

Big Trouble
  • Movie