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With: Owen Wilson, Morgan Freeman, Sara Foster, Gary Sinise, Charlie Sheen, Vinnie Jones, Willie Nelson, Harry Dean Stanton, Bebe Neuwirth
Written by: Sebastian Gutierrez, based on a novel by Elmore Leonard
Directed by: George Armitage
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sexual content and nudity, violence and language
Running Time: 88
Date: 01/29/2004

The Big Bounce (2004)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Caper Thin

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In some alternate universe, director George Armitage may have been the next Quentin Tarantino, a hipster director specializing in sharply written crime flicks. Unlike Tarantino, Armitage keeps a very low profile; it's even difficult to find out much of anything about him. His latest press kit bio runs a grand total of 20 words.

He certainly has cred, though. Like so many other high-profile filmmakers, he began working for Roger Corman, penning screenplays for such films as Gas-s-s-s and Night Call Nurses.

In 1990, he adapted a pulp crime novel by the very cool Charles Willeford into Miami Blues. The film didn't particularly cause a stampede, but it earned loyal cult followings from both fans and critics.

That landed him a job working on another hipster film, John Cusack's 1997 Grosse Pointe Blank, which opened to just about the same kind of reaction.

Seven years seems to be about the time it takes for Armitage to get around to making another movie. And once more he's gone to a hipster source, Elmore Leonard, a writer whose words have inspired such cool filmmakers as Tarantino, Steven Soderbergh, Abel Ferrara, John Frankenheimer, Burt Reynolds and Paul Schrader.

Armitage's new picture The Big Bounce -- made previously in 1969 with Ryan O'Neal -- will probably cause very little stir in the movie world. Most people will hate it or ignore it, but a small army will embrace it like a thrift store treasure.

Owen Wilson stars in the film's lead role, Jack Ryan, a footloose misfit who winds up in Hawaii hoping for a fresh start. He begins working construction for the local big wheel, Ray Ritchie (Gary Sinise). While on the job, he gets into a tiff with the foreman (Vinnie Jones) and whacks him upside the head with a baseball bat. After a brief jail stay, Ray's right-hand man Bob Jr. (Charlie Sheen) warns him to get out of town.

But the local judge, Walter Crewes (Morgan Freeman) likes him and offers him a maintenance job on a group of bungalows. This gives him time to get to know Ray's extramarital girlfriend, Nancy Hayes (Sara Foster), who offers Jack a chance to steal $200,000 from Ray's hunting lodge.

As is usual in Leonard�s stories, various subplots come and go, including a colleague of Jack's who tries to swindle him out of $1500 to pay off a dangerous debt. But Armitage doesn't seem to care much about grinding out the suspense or dutifully moving the story forward. Rather, he takes his time and wallows in the lovely Hawaiian settings, relying on Wilson's natural laid-back charm to keep the film going.

Indeed, in any given scene Jack changes his mind about the $200,000 heist, preferring to enjoy the moment, whether he's having a beer, surfing, laying naked in bed with the gorgeous Nancy or playing dominoes with Walter and his friends (Harry Dean Stanton and Willie Nelson in wonderful small roles).

It helps that Wilson -- like Bill Murray -- can adapt his personality to just about any role. The phrase "marching to the beat of a different drummer" was probably invented for him; his line deliveries tap into some strange, natural place within -- hardly ever from any written screenplay.

During tense moments, he coolly assesses his situation while making wry comments as if from the sidelines. Rigid filmmaking doesn't work with him; his off-beat rhythms force the rest of the movie to loosen up and follow his lead.

Armitage has worked a minor miracle in casting newcomer Sara Foster, a model with little acting experience. Rather than playing a model, offering her gorgeous limbs for display, or vamping it up as a femme fatale, she turns up the energy and plays Nancy as a dangerous flirt. She's so irresistibly playful and fearlessly physical that she steals scenes from her more experienced co-stars -- and matches Wilson at his own game. It's not hard to catch Wilson gazing and grinning at her in true awe and adoration.

Still, The Big Bounce eventually lacks that crisp, alert factor that usually elevates Leonard's material in superior films, like Get Shorty, Jackie Brown and Out of Sight.

In one scene, Morgan Freeman and his co-conspirator Bebe Neuwirth (playing Ray's bored, boozy wife Alison) try to fix a plan gone awry. Alison suggests a couple of dumb ideas, to which Walter replies, "try not to think -- it's bad for the team."

Perhaps that's what Armitage and his cast and crew had in mind with The Big Bounce. If so, they've succeeded in making a cheerfully sunny, lightweight entertainment that goes perfectly with a tropical cocktail and a nap on the beach.

DVD Details: I can't understand why this fun, sunny movie didn't catch on with audiences. Maybe Owen Wilson's odd humor is too intelligent or too off-beat to attract anything but a cult following. And the superb Out of Sight, also based on Leonard's book, didn't catch on either. All the more reason for audiences to catch it on Warner Home Video's new DVD, where it works just as well. Extras include a 12-minute making-of featurette which is mostly made up of clips from the movie, a trailer, and two surfing-related shorts. I would have been interested to see or at least hear from director Armitage, but he's nowhere to be found. The picture is mastered in 2.35-to-1 widescreen and the sound is available in English or French. Optional subtitles include English, French and Spanish.

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