Review: 'Big Trouble'

plus the Return of the TamBay Film and Video Festival

Along with all the other unavoidable questions of our age — where were you when JFK was shot, what were you doing when Kurt Cobain bought it, and the one about the chicken and the egg — we now have the Mother of All Big Questions, at least until the next one comes along: Where were you on Sept. 11, 2001, when the airplanes of death had their fatal moment with those tall, beautiful buildings that once defined the Manhattan skyline?

Me, I was sitting in a movie theater, waiting for the feature to start.

No big surprise there. What I remember even more vividly, though, is what I was doing on the day before the twin towers fell, on the 10th of September, because that's when I saw Big Trouble.

If Big Trouble rings any bells at all, it's most likely due to the brief but intense notoriety it occasioned when the movie's original September opening date was indefinitely postponed after the terrorist attacks. In one of the most glaring examples ever of life-imitates-art anti-serendipity and just-plain bad timing, Big Trouble's grand finale features a pair of lowlifes who whisk through airport security by bribing a couple of employees, hijack a plane and proceed to cruise the friendly skies of America with a weapon of mass destruction ticking away in their suitcase. Oh, and did I mention it was a comedy?

Needless to say, the movie simply ceased to exist after 9/11, only to resurface now, when everyone's nerves aren't quite so raw.

Big Trouble is the latest movie from Barry Sonnenfeld, and it's a zany, dark-ish ensemble comedy very much in the tradition of the director's Get Shorty. As in Shorty, there are hit men aplenty in Sonnenfeld's new film (one played by Dennis Farina, whose very presence can't help but conjure up visions of Shorty), but the sprawling cast of characters includes scads of other disparate types as well. Despite the occasional burst of titter-inducing cheap laughs and sexual innuendo, most of the writing is pretty smart and generally very funny, in a relentlessly quirky sort of way (just as you'd expect from a project closely based on a Dave Barry book). All of the sundry characters bounce around merrily during the movie's blessedly brief 85-minute running time, with their life paths occasionally intersecting and eventually colliding en masse at the film's point of no return.

The whole thing takes place in Miami (it's a Barry thing, see) and is narrated by a beatific hippie-dippie named Puggy (Jason Lee), the man who saw it all. Puggy, who lives in a tree, looks a lot like Jesus, and seems to be Sonnenfeld's spoof on a Gump-ian holy fool, is our sweet, clueless witness to the movie's increasingly ridiculous series of events: It must be true, because an idiot says it happened.

Big Trouble throws together a bullying, neo-conservative foot fetishist (Stanley Tucci), his extremely dissatisfied wife (Rene Russo), a recently divorced dad (Tim Allen), a pair of squabbling cops (Janeane Garofalo and Patrick Warburton), a shit-faced security guard (Andy Richter), two bumbling scumbags (Tom Sizemore and Johnny Knoxville) who wind up accidentally stealing a nuclear bomb and kicking into high gear whatever passes for plot here, a large toad who causes more than one of the movie's characters to experience psychedelic visions involving Martha Stewart, and a couple of teens whose speech and general demeanor are so deadpan they make the kids from Ghost World seem like Robin Williams on crystal meth.

Then there are those aforementioned hit men who, as with so many professional killers in movies like this one, possess an absurdly elevated knowledge of trivia, and say and do the last things we would expect them to.

A steady and well-placed supply of running gags is sprinkled throughout, slamming everything from Martha Stewart to the teens' poor grammar to Geos to Gator fans to the whole issue of the East Coast hit men's distaste for everything about Miami. Very few of the gags fall flat, and that goes a long way toward compensating for a predictably chaotic final 20 minutes padded with too many shots of cars crashing and driving the wrong way against traffic. Allen and Russo's characters fall in love, providing the movie with its requisite emotional center.

As for that problematic finale, it's highly unlikely that the sequence will carry anything like the weight it would have six months ago, so it's practically a sure bet that the movie will survive its own most sensitive moments. For what it's worth, the bomb-wielding hijackers in Sonnenfeld's film are about as nonthreatening as they come — ineffectual, doughy and built exclusively for laughs.

A smattering of pretty much all the basic cinematic food groups will be on display from April 4 to 7 when the Second Annual TamBay Film and Video Festival rolls into Channelside Cinemas. Comedy, drama, quirky "personal" films — they're all represented in the 60 short films, wacky student works, searing documentaries and, of course, feature-length narratives that will screen over the course of the festival's four days.

The films and videos hail not just from the U.S. but from all over the world. The one thing they all have in common is that each is an independent effort, financed and created somewhere outside the mainstream. Florida filmmakers account for a full one-third of this year's lineup, and more than half those screenings will be world premieres. Many of the filmmakers will be in attendance to introduce their work and answer questions after the screenings.

With some 60 films, it's pretty much impossible to provide details on everything, but here's a highly subjective short list of just some of the probable highlights of this year's festival: Arroz con Mango (April 5, 10 p.m.), director Juana Frias' romantic comedy about an independent Cuban-American woman coping with the chaos of life in Miami; I'll Play My Heart Out For You (April 7, 2 p.m.), a documentary account of acclaimed African musician Cheick Tidiane Seck's eventful three-month teaching stint at UCLA; Heavy Metal Comedy (April 6, 8 p.m.), a front-row seat at former SNL comedian Jim Breuer's raucous live show; The Icelandic Drum (April 5, 7:30 and April 6, 10 a.m.), a Dogme-inspired take on a not-quite middle-aged businessman on the verge of a nervous breakdown; and Thank You, Good Night (April 4, 10 p.m. and April 7, 6:10 p.m.), a fictitious chronicle of the final tour of a highly dysfunctional (aren't they all?) postpunk band. The festival's opening night film is What Matters Most, a modern Romeo-and-Juliet teenage love story directed by Jane Cusumano, who was diagnosed with breast cancer and died shortly after the film was completed. Half the proceeds of opening night ticket sales will benefit Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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