An actor’s ability to convey comedy to a camera is obviously what makes or breaks a role and therefore a film. Rodney Dangerfield in “Back to School” (click here for my review) is a prime example of a great comic forging a great role with great material. Much less usual is an entire cast being just about uniformly excellent as well as uniformly funny. However, the most obvious examples that come to my mind are “Caddyshack” and “National Lampoon’s Animal House.” However, one comedy that is nearly as good but certainly not as well-remembered, much less iconic as the former duo, is “Big Trouble” from 1999. It is funny from its gags to its dialogue – and it bombed big time at the box office. Still, you can enjoy it big time right now. It’s not often that you get a comedic private eye who diffuses a nuclear situation and it’s even rarer when a movie this funny and special didn’t get the notice it should have received.
(2002; 85 minutes; rated PG; directed by Barry Sonnenfeld and starring Tim Allen, Rene Russo and Stanley Tucci)
GREAT COMEDY MADE BETTER BY ACTORS
(NOTE: I expanded this review with more opinion – none was changed – and updated links on Sept. 7, 2015, and then again with links and more opinion on May 21, 2017.)
If you’d like to see a film funny from start to finish; greatness from the headliners to the actors with the bittest of bit parts; and just-can’t-wait to see it from one line to the next, then don’t delay and check out “Big Trouble” starring Tim Allen and Rene Russo. It’s as fall-down funny as can be – unlike a very few films you can find. Somehow, I missed it in theaters and I say it is one of the five best films of all time that you most likely don’t remember.
I just can’t write enough superlatives about “Big Trouble.” You simply have to watch it. Both Allen, who was three years past his hit TV show “Home Improvement” in this one, and Russo, who was three years past her sizzling turn in the remake of “The Thomas Crown Affair” (click here for my review), are sharp. You are also fortunate to get:
- Master prankster Johnny “Jackass” Knoxville giving a very surprisingly effective turn in a somewhat subdued role for him …
- … along with the always excellent Stanley Tucci as an acid-tongued bad guy (he also licks the maid’s toes in a rather creepy scene) …
- … plus Dennis Farina as a bad-luck hitman who gets tormented by fans of my beloved University of Florida Gators …
- … and Janeane Garofolo, who is cast out-of-type as a cop and hitting an out-of-the-park grand slam home run with it.
You get it all when you toss in a simply delightful piece of work by Zooey Deschanel as Russo’s daughter; Ben Foster as the wonderfully recalcitrant son of Allen; and, finally, Sofia “Modern Family” Vergara as the vulnerable maid. The supporting cast is so good it should have earned seven if not eight figures each. Compared to some of the crap that rakes in $100 million plus these days, “Big Trouble” is a gem and should have been better rewarded by moviegoers.
The story revolves around the lives of a bunch of people who converge through will or fate with a smuggled nuclear device. Yes, the film is based on Pulitzer Prize winning Miami Herald writer-turned-novelist Dave Barry’s book, but it’s great to note that screenwriters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone do an outstanding conversion. It offers a ton of hilarious one-liners plus a number of ongoing jokes.
The film’s characters are for the most part paired:
- Allen, who plays “Eliot Arnold” and Foster, who plays “Matt Arnold”
- Russo, who plays “Anna Herk” and Deschanel as “Jenny Herk”
- Knoxville as “Eddie Ledbetter” and his bossy partner “Snake Dupree” played to perfection by Tom Sizemore
- The hitmen – with Farina as “Henry Desalvo” and Jack Kehler as “Leonard Ferroni”
- The cops – with Garafalo as “Monica Romero” and her partner “Walter Kramitz” played by Patrick Warburton, who is best known for his “Seinfeld” role (he’s also the video MC in the introduction to Disney World’s “Soarin’” ride at EPCOT)
- The two FBI agents Omar Epps and Heavy D as “Alan Seitz” and “Pat Greer”
- Even the weapons dealers are paired up with Daniel London as “John / Ivan” and Lars Arentz-Hansen as “Leo,” who run “The Jolly Jackal” and sell more weaponry than spirits.
- Finally – even Andy Richter (Conan O’Brien’s sidekick) is paired with himself by playing brothers “Jack Pendick” and “Ralph Pendick” in separate scenes.
The true loner here is Oscar nominee Tucci (not for this one), who plays “Arthur Herk.” Tucci is on his crooked bosses’ hit list for stealing their crooked money. Tucci, who is wonderfully manic here, truly gives his all. Although I doubt he says it, “Big Trouble” is a prime slice on his resume. He has been in “The Hunger Games” and “The Devil Wears Prada.”
Actually, there’s one other loner in Jason Lee. He plays “Puggy” and begins as the short-lived narrator before giving way to Allen. Lee plays a homeless guy who’s the thread throughout all the people here. I guess he isn’t really a loner since he finds his soulmate in Vergara – not much of a stretch here since she becomes instantly sympathetic when Tucci licks her toes.
Bouncing from one to the other are Allen and Russo.
- Allen was an interesting choice for co-star here. He was coming off voicing the first two “Toy Story” efforts and the two “Santa Clause” films (the second came the same year as “Big Trouble”) but was still best known for TV’s “Home Improvement.” He does good work and is totally smooth as the frustrated father even more frustrated with his life – and he pulls off the jokes really well. Golden Globe winner Allen was also in “Wild Hogs” and “Christmas with the Kranks.”
- Russo doesn’t play the blatantly sexual character she did in “The Thomas Crown Affair” three years earlier, but she’s lookin’ for love and finds it with Allen. The role doesn’t stretch her talents much, but her competence carries the day for her instead of letting this character be a liability of the film. Russo was in “Get Shorty” (click here for my review) and “Major League” (click here for my review) and its sequel.
Lee gives his usual smooth but so-so performance and is the best description of a weak link in “Big Trouble.” Still, he’s not bad – he grades out OK. He’s not up to the quality of his supporting work in “Dogma” (click here for my review) so I’ll just keep him as only so-so here.
It’s Knoxville along with Deschanel who make the biggest impression for my own viewing. Johnny shows the ability for comedy he’d revive three years later in “The Dukes of Hazzard” (click here for my review). It’s really cool to note that such a performer has such great timing and uses each moment of screen time to perfection. Another outstanding but understated performance is by Deschanel, who is wise beyond her teenaged years and the ultimate attraction for Foster. Her pithy comments are priceless and without them the film wouldn’t have been whole.
Farina, who played both sides of the crime fence in his big screen and TV careers, is smooth and cool in the face of incredible frustration. From chasing off some youthful gang members with a pistol to the final indignity of goats on an airport runway (yes, goats), Farina uses his acting chops well here and makes it look easy. He was in “Saving Private Ryan” and played an FBI agent in the original “Dr. Hannibal Lecter” film (“Manhunter” – click here for my review) before his death in 2013 at the age of 69.
Tucci just explodes in the film from his first frame to his last. At one point, whacked out when sprayed in the face by a toad, he hallucinates seeing his dog with Martha Stewart’s head on it body, barking his name … “Herk! Herk! Herk! Herk!” Actually, like Barry’s work, it does make sense and has context. You’ll just have to find it out for yourself.
Getting into the mix is Foster trying to “kill” Deschanel with a squirt gun in a high school game and the hitmen, who have every conceivable piece of bad luck (including goats on a runway that delay their flight back to New York).
DJ Qualls, who plays Allen’s son’s best friend “Andrew Ryan,” is in his first credited big-screen role here. Qualls, who is a versatile character actor, did a wonderful job playing the odd student in 2000’s “Road Trip” (click here for my review) and has a sizeable TV resume including “Lost,” “Breaking Bad” and a really neat episode on “The Big Bang Theory” (click here for my look at the series when it jumped the shark).
The two FBI agents played by Epps and Heavy D (credited in the film as Dwight “Heavy D” Myers) are droll, intelligent and forceful. They arrive at the “Jolly Jackal” establishment, which has “more AK-47s than Budweiser,” and kind of take over from there.
Throughout the film many of the characters quote the Discovery Channel for the arcane facts about the issues they face, such as it is only the female mosquito that bites or the hallucinogenic effect of the toad’s venom.
Heck, even radio is funny here, with a running subplot about a sports radio show and the University of Florida Gators football team (and fans of the Gators get the parting shot – pun intended – at the hitmen).
If I had to choose, the absolutely funniest single scene is when Knoxville and Sizemore are driving Deschanel and Lee, their hostages, to the airport. They see a sign with arrows: one way for departures and a different one for arrivals. Knoxville, in confusion with absolute seriousness, says, “We’re arriving … then we’re departing.” Sizemore is flummoxed, too, and says about which road to take, “What do you think?” When Knoxville repeats the “arriving … departing” in the airport terminal while looking at the flight monitors, it’s just gets better and Deschanel’s biting sarcasm is icing on the cake.
Everything winds up with a neat, if somewhat twisted, bow by the time the credits roll. As I’ve already written, if you’ve never heard of this one, make sure you see it.
It simply boggles the mind that “Big Trouble” earned a paltry $7.3 million and was therefore ranked 156th in ticket sales for the year, according to Box Office Mojo. It was made on an $18 million budget, according to Wiki. The No. 1 film was “Spider-Man” with $403.7 million. The other film from 2002 that I have reviewed is “Big Fat Liar” (No. 53 with $48.3 million – click here for my review).
According to Wiki, “Big Trouble” was originally set for release in September 2001, but the 9-11 terrorist attacks pushed it back to the next spring and it didn’t come out of the box well with a smaller advertising footprint.
Some cast and film notes (via IMDb.com):
- David Koepp, better known for his writing credits, is the voice of the sports radio show host who verbally spars with a Gators fan, who is voiced by director Barry Sonnenfeld in the running joke.
- Pairings were also a part of the actors’ work in other films in 2002. Both Farina and Lee were in “Stealing Harvard” and both Qualls and Deschanel were in “The New Guy.”
- Dave Barry has an uncredited role as “lawyer,” which is a character that fits right into his sense of humor.
- Another note about Barry: The author’s novel had Tucci hallucinating Elizabeth Dole instead of Stewart.
- The audience is the big winner on another front since the wooden, talentless Katie Holmes had originally signed on to play “Jenny Herk,” but the part thankfully and to the eternal gratefulness of anyone who watches ultimately went to Deschanel. Thank you, casting director or fate. Thank you.
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