Elmore Leonard had just started writing crime novels when he wrote “The Big Bounce” back in the late 60s. So he has an excuse. Virtually everyone else connected to this second big screen version of the book (the first, starring Ryan O’Neal, was released in 1969) is an old hat at his craft. Which makes the movie’s all-pervading amateurishness as difficult to explain as it is to endure.
If it had nothing going for it but the direction of George Armitage, the picture would have qualified as one of late winter’s most promising. With 1990’s “Miami Blues” and 97’s “Grosse Pointe Blank,” the filmmaker established himself as a master of the darkly offbeat crime story.
And what were the chances of Morgan Freeman, Willie Nelson and Harry Dean Stanton all ending up in front of a camera together and nothing memorable emerging from the grizzled convergence? If “The Big Bounce” is interesting in any respect at all, it’s only in terms of the odds defied in it’s winding up so dull.
Owen Wilson is in stony surfer dude mode once again in the central role. He plays a small time crook who’s just been fired by a wealthy developer (Gary Sinise) who is in the process of building a sprawling new resort on Hawaii’s North Shore. Freeman costars as a district judge who dresses like Jimmy Buffet and owns a string of funky beachfront bungalows.
From the beginning, the audience is let in on the secret that Freeman is up to something and has decided to make the breezy drifter a pawn in his plan. The beach boy, in fact, turns out to be one of the few people on the island in the dark with regard to the judge’s motives when Freeman hires him on as a groundskeeper-maintainance guy and a blonde floozy immediately enters his life. Ex-model Sara Foster turns in an over-the-top performance as a thrillseeking seductress who hooks up with Wilson despite the fact that she’s well known to be Sinise’s mistress.
She talks Wilson into showing her how to steal a car and break into a home, his specialty. The crime spree is treated like the harmless pranks of two free spirits. Armitage intercuts generic Endless Summer-style footage of blue skies, big waves and tanned ten-hangers in between the couple’s hijinx as part of an apparent effort to give the film a freewheeling 60s feel. The picture’s title art and music are clearly intended to contribute to the effect.
The experiment fails, though, due primarily to the film’s complete lack of spark or energy. Or bounce for that matter. Wilson is a likable enough presence and appears to toss off the picture’s few funny lines but the machinery of the movie is plodding, creaky and, worst of all, predictable. Even the groggiest viewer will catch on to its driving gimmick: Any character who doesn’t seem to be part of Freeman’s scheme is guaranteed to be revealed to be by the middle of the final act. The plot twisting is so overdone it impresses in the end as more silly than surprising.
As does “The Big Bounce.” By the way, good luck making sense out of the final fifteen minutes. I’d say people were asleep at the wheel on this one but the film is so pointlessly all over the place that I’m not sure there even was one. Will Sinise get swindled by Wilson? Will Wilson get swindled by Freeman? Will Freeman get swindled by Foster?
Does it really matter when the audience gets swindled by them all?