Judge Patrick Bromley denies that the title of this Elmore Leonard adaptation refers to any of the physical attributes of co-star Sara Foster. Honest, he does. Really.
Who's scamming who?
Elmore Leonard has had an enviable run in the last ten years. Not only have the film adaptations of his novels been handled by some gifted directors (Steven Soderbergh, Paul Schrader, Quentin Tarantino), but the films themselves have turned out pretty damn good. Get Shorty, Jackie Brown (from Leonard's novel Rum Punch), Touch, and Out of Sight are all terrific films—Leonard should be proud.
The most recent film to toss its hat into the Elmore Leonard-adaptation ring is The Big Bounce, which had previously been adapted for the screen in 1969. Despite the presence of yet another great director—George Armitage—this Elmore Leonard flick winds up the worst of the bunch.
Facts of the Case
Small-time crook / likeable loser Jack Ryan (no connection to the Tom Clancy character or recently embarrassed would-be Senator, he's played by Owen Wilson from Starsky and Hutch) is biding his time in Hawaii, working construction and trying to keep his nose clean. After getting fired from his job for swatting his boss in the face with a baseball bat—albeit in self-defense—he begins working for Walter (Morgan Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption, Se7en), a resort owner and judge who befriends Jack. The resort is where he encounters Nancy (former model Sara Foster, in her film debut), a knockout blonde who just happens to be the mistress of the island's foremost bad guy, Ray Ritchie (Gary Sinise, Forrest Gump, Snake Eyes). As the two begin their flirtatious relationship, Nancy hatches a plan to rip off Ray and make both her and Jack rich. Only question—can she be trusted?
I was among the few that happened to see The Big Bounce during the 15 minutes it played in theaters earlier this year, and my disappointed reaction was short-lived. Not because I quickly came around and realized I was mistaken in my assessment, but because the film almost immediately vanished from my mind—it's so deliberately breezy that it drifts away.
Watching it a second time in the comfort of my living room, I found myself more forgiving of the film. It may be that I was more prepared for what the film had in store—I could see it for the movie it is and not the movie I wanted it to be. More likely, though, is that this is a film that actually holds up better on the small screen; its lazy rhythms and affably laid-back characters are better suited for home viewing than the theater, where the surrounding distractions constantly conflict with the distractions of the film.
Because that's exactly what it is—a distracted film. It wants to be a crime film…sort of. It's usually too busy hanging out with its characters, listening to them talk and make plans but never really take action (when anyone finally does, near the film's end, the whole thing literally grinds to a halt—there's no interest in the payoff). It wants to be a comedy…kind of. There's a goofy sense of fun overall, and some smiles to be had at the expense of some of the film's dumber characters (very few of Leonard's characters are ever particularly bright), but it's never all that funny. It's too distracted by its other elements—the crime plot, or surfing footage, or Sara Foster in a swimsuit.
The Big Bounce's meandering nature is both its biggest charm and its primary downfall. The film is happy to hang there for 90 minutes and then be on its mellow way—it's a little like the Coen Brothers' The Big Lebowski in that way. The problem is that Lebowski was about doing nothing—laziness was the point. The Big Bounce, on the other hand, comes from Elmore Leonard, who can write some fairly complicated capers rife with plot twists and double-crosses. That's where the film fails; it just barely tries to incorporate those elements of Leonard, but you clearly get the feeling that nobody's heart was in it—it might've bummed the good times. The tone is right, but the story isn't—it knows the music, but the words are all wrong.
The film is rated PG-13, of course, because what film these days isn't? I can't for the life of me figure out why, either—it's a case where there's no way even making it accessible to teenagers was going to draw them in. Why not let it go as an "R" and actually have a film for adults? I mention this only because the film feels severely edited; while it manages to flirt with an R rating as much as a PG-13 film can, its choppiness is still maddeningly evident. There may be an entirely different—and altogether better—film still lying on the cutting room floor; one that took its time and was able to actually develop the relationship between Jack and Nancy (the film centers itself around it, yet it fails to follow any kind of logic or make any sense). I guess we'll never know.
The first-rate cast is extremely winning, which only compounds the problem; we like the characters too much to believe they're capable of turning on one another or committing acts of viciousness. Owen Wilson, who initially seems to be all wrong for the lead in an Elmore Leonard flick, is actually pretty perfect as Jack. He's completely believable as a guy who steals not out of malice or some kind of pathology, but just because he doesn't much feel like working for a living. I liked his self-effacing personality, and the way he uses that signature stoner-drawl to approach his lines from a totally unexpected angle. Wilson's an interesting actor; if I didn't know he was intelligent and creative enough to write some brilliant screenplays (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums), I'd swear he wandered into movies by accident. Here he proves that given the right material, he's capable of carrying a film.
Of course, The Big Bounce surrounds him with a great cast that it doesn't know what to do with. Gary Sinise is meant to be the film's heavy, except we mostly only hear him talked about—he only shows up in two or three scenes and fails to make any kind of menacing impact. Charlie Sheen (Platoon), as Bob. Jr., should be a quintessential Leonard-style inept clown of a bad-guy goon—it's a shame he's not only unfunny here, but winds up one of the more sympathetic characters in the film (which is all wrong). Morgan Freeman is characteristically great in a type of role we don't see him in very often, but his character doesn't make much sense when all is said and done. And then there's Sara Foster. Wow. Her part doesn't demand much from her other than that she be sexy enough to tempt at least three different men, which she certainly accomplishes. It's not even that she's terribly beautiful, just sexy; she never moves so much as slinks in a way that lacks any rehearsed grace—which, for some reason, makes her even sexier. As a femme fatale and as an actress, Foster starts out pretty terrible, but improves as the film progresses; it's a testament to some degree of skill that she must possess that by the film's end, we're doubting her right alongside Wilson.
The director of The Big Bounce, George Armitage, has only made three films in the past fourteen—fourteen—years. The first two, Miami Blues and Grosse Point Blank, are favorites of mine—there's an edginess, a masterful blend of quirkiness, comedy, and violence that I'm drawn to when done right. It's disappointing, then, that he doesn't make more films. When he finally does, it's too bad that it's The Big Bounce. The film had all of the potential to be another Armitage knockout, but either he got too caught up in wrestling with the tone or had his legs cut too deeply out from under him by the MPAA to deliver the goods. Either way, his resulting film doesn't really work.
Warner Bros. is releasing The Big Bounce in their usual style, meaning two separate editions based solely on aspect ratio (there's a widescreen and a full frame version available). Naturally, for the Verdict I watched the 2.35 anamorphic widescreen edition. Despite some noticeably minor edge enhancement, the picture looks excellent—colors are bright and detail has been well rendered. The 5.1 Dolby audio track is a good deal of fun too; there are some good ambient beach-sound separation effects and a strong bass mix for the multiple wave-crashing establishing shots. It's a technically sound disc.
The extras included are disappointing. Not only are there no deleted or extended scenes (where we might have seen things play out in their original, uncut form), but there's no commentary from Armitage either. All that's included is a standard production featurette and a couple of pieces on surfing (because the film is about surfing, in as much as there are some shots of people surfing in the movie). Any or all of these extras can be skipped. Also on hand are the film's theatrical trailer and a couple of bonus trailers.
As a film, The Big Bounce is hard to dislike—it's just a shame that it's not very good. It's a mildly pleasant diversion for a rainy afternoon—if that's all you demand from a film, by all means be my guest. Otherwise, you'd best seek out something that sticks.
The Big Bounce does its best to stay afloat, but eventually wipes out. I blame the Tiki doll.
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