'Trouble': Mismatches Made in Miami
Friday, April 5, 2002
"Big Trouble" might have been the pilot episode for a series titled "Miami Lice": It sees most of the citizens of that lush tropical town as leeches, scumbags, losers, el stupidos, morons and tick-heads.
That seems to be a consensus of Miami writers, by the way. Though "Big Trouble" derives from a novel by the great humorist Dave Barry, its conceit pretty much represents the house style on Miami, which you see equally expressed in works by Carl Hiaasen, Edna Buchanan and even Elmore Leonard. We're a long way from Crockett and Tubbs's cool Casablanca of a place where all the men wore pastels and carried guns that were color-coordinated.
No, for these writers South Florida is a funny place, not a cool place. It's got weird vegetation, blue-haired old ladies driving 22 mph in the fast lane, angry Cubans and Gator-mania. Burt Reynolds considers it home. Sylvester Stallone and Madonna once lived there. Anyone can carry a gun anywhere anytime. The traffic is bad and getting worse. The corpse has a familiar face. It's California without the manners, and since there are no manners in California . . .
Into the seething mosh pit that is Miami comes Barry's plot, not that anyone would notice, not that anyone could summarize. It's one of those first-this-happens-then-that-happens scenarios, involving domestic violence, stolen nuclear weapons, squirt-gun murders, real murders, street criminals and a one-time newspaper star trying to regain the respect of his son. Just your normal comedy components.
The keys are speed and timing, the marks of a good lightweight, which sums up "Big Trouble" well enough. The director is Barry Sonnenfeld, who has a flair for deadpan black humor "The Addams Family" and its sequel demonstrated that, as did "Men in Black." He's still light on his feet, and the movie's almost over before you know it.
Its main comic device is the partnership ritual. The movie is full of partners who are weirdly mismatched, yet perfect together because of their syncopation and contrast. One will always be over the top, the other under the bottom; one will be loud, the other quiet but disgusted.
One couple is hit man Henry Algott (Dennis Farina), a slow-burn specialist who loathes the city for its vulgarity, paired with Jack Kehler, as another hit man but an idiot. The idiot is forever telling bad jokes, which Farina simply glowers at. When Farina turns on the radio, he always gets the same sports talk show, whose personality is taunting Gators fans to call, and they do and they have nothing to say except "I just called." The automatic seat belt of Farina's rental car is always lightly grazing his face, and you see the rage mounting as his skin turns purple beneath his tan. (Farina, a former Chicago cop, is always worth watching.)
The two hitters have arrived to kill a jerk named Herk (Stanley Tucci), who's embezzled money from his employers, but they get mixed up with two kids on a squirt gun mission, which brings in one of the kids' fathers Tim Allen, as former Miami Herald humor columnist Eliot Arnold. He quickly partners up with Herk the Jerk's wife, Anna (Rene Russo), while his son, Matt (Ben Foster), is partnering up with Anna's daughter, Jenny (the very funny Zooey Deschanel).
Of course, two cops (Janeane Garofalo and Patrick Warburton, Puddy from "Seinfeld") investigate the mixed-up hit by .30-06 and Super Soaker. Then two street crooks (Tom Sizemore and Johnny Knoxville), who appear not to have bathed since Florida was admitted to the Union, steal the bomb that Herk meant to buy from two Russians, and two FBI agents (Omar Epps and Heavy D) show up. Even the pets have partners: the dog and the frog.
There is no point in going any further, and I may have gone too far already. But the way the roundelay of partners functions, and the interplay within partnerships and among partnerships and the general air of Gator-bashing are consistently delightful, if unlikely to be confused with the writings of Martin Buber.
The movie is already slightly famous because it was postponed from fall release after the events of Sept. 11. One of its plotlines follows the hijacking of a plane with that ticking nuclear bomb aboard.
Is it safe for "Big Trouble" to come out now? I don't think the bomb plot is realistic enough to stir disturbing emotions or upsetting memories. This is, after all, the kind of movie in which traffic accidents not only mess up getaways but also liberate goats to wander through the airport. We need more of that stuff.