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'Big Bounce' aims for hard-boiled but winds up only half-cooked

A long, long way into "The Big Bounce," there's a scene in which a handful of the characters sit down and play dominoes. This is apropos of nothing, as is everything else in the film. The players include Owen Wilson -- the movie's nominal star -- Morgan Freeman, and cameo extras Willie Nelson and Harry Dean Stanton, and damned if everyone doesn't look baked out of their skulls.

It's frustrating. Here are these fellows having a high old giggle about all the places the film isn't going, and there are we on the other side of the screen, cheesed about having paid for dinner, a sitter, and a movie, and then having been handed an Elmore Leonard novel with the plot deconstructed right out of it.

The novelist has seen any number of his laid-back thrillers adapted to the screen over the years, from "Get Shorty" to "Out of Sight" to "Jackie Brown" (ne "Rum Punch"). His 1969 book "The Big Bounce" had already been made into a dreadful movie starring Ryan O'Neal and Leigh Taylor-Young the year of its publication. Of the new version Leonard recently groused to a (Newark) Star-Ledger reporter, "It's not the book."

We feel his pain. Relocated from Detroit to the island of Kauai for no other reason than to pad out the running time with random surfing footage, "The Big Bounce" follows shiftless charmer Jack Ryan (Wilson) as he decides whether to commit to the robbery of $200,000 from a crooked real estate developer named Ray Ritchie (Gary Sinise). While rigorous narrative has never been the point of Leonard -- he's instead a master of the hard-boiled comic digression -- "Bounce" is all wink and no substance. It's a luau in search of a movie, and the audience isn't invited.

Jack's coconspirator in the heist is Ray's mistress Nancy, a sunlit film-noir bad girl played badly by fashion model Sara Foster. Also fluttering around the edges are Walter (Freeman), the island's relaxed district judge; Ray's very tense and unnaturally pallid wife, Alison (Bebe Neuwirth); and Ray's dimwitted aide de camp Bob Rogers Jr. (Charlie Sheen). Judging from press materials left over from the movie's original fall 2003 release date, Kris Kristofferson was supposed to have been in here as well, but apparently he landed on the cutting-room floor along with the story line.

In fact, "The Big Bounce" has all the earmarks of a project that has been whittled into incoherence in the editing room in a lunatic attempt to "fix" it. Why do Jack and Nancy break into beach houses for the purposes of not having sex? What part does Jack's loser friend Frank (Gregory Sporleder) play in the proceedings? Did Sinise get paid for his five seconds of screen time? Your guess is as good as mine.

Eventually, the ramshackle, shaggy-dog vibe just gets annoying. The true nature of the big heist is revealed late in the game, and by then the only response is derision. Director George Armitage and his camera team bear much of the blame; the former has lost whatever edge he showed with "Miami Blues" and "Grosse Pointe Blank," and the latter manages to make Kauai look ugly, which really takes some doing.

The bigger problem is that no one on the screen bothers to commit to a character. The charmless Foster acts mostly with her cleavage and lacks the carnal aplomb of even a B-movie femme fatale -- she's all body and no grace. Wilson coasts along on the script's ragged surf, but he's too much of a likable beach bum to exude any of the danger a Leonard hero needs to survive. Freeman and Neuwirth appear to have gotten a nice Hawaiian vacation out of the producers without bothering to give anything back.

As for Willie and Harry Dean, I'll have what they're having.

("The Big Bounce": *)

Ty Burr can be reached at

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