My Year Of Flops Case File #37: Big Trouble

My Year Of Flops Case File #37: Big Trouble

It seems apt that both movies entitled Big Trouble encountered just that during their long, rocky road to theaters. Barry Sonnefeld's more recent adaptation of Dave Barry's hit novel was scheduled for release on September 21st, 2001 until the tragic events of September 11 (I suspect the Republican party copyrighted the phrase "The Tragic Events of September 11th" sometime early the morning of September 12th) transformed a plotline involving goons unwittingly bringing a bomb onboard a plane into a colossal headache for a studio that had already pumped a fortune into promoting it. The film's release was pushed back until April of 2002. It bombed anyway.

Surprisingly, the '80s film named Big Trouble ran into even more trouble en route to underwhelming critics and audiences alike. Original writer-director Andrew Bergman, fresh off the triumph of writing The In-Laws, acrimoniously left the project at some point. The producers sanely chose as zany funster Bergman's replacement a filmmaker synonymous with light-hearted tomfoolery and impish shenanigans: John "Baron Von Laughsalot" Cassavettes, a man who knows light comedy the way Larry The Cable Guy knows the lesser works of Moliere. The famously iconoclastic, legendarily independent Cassavettes unsurprisingly ran into trouble of his own with the producers, who at some point re-cut the film over Cassavettes' wishes during the film's interminable, nearly two-year-long journey from completion to release.

Like many of the films I've written about for this project Big Trouble was consequently an unabashed failure before anyone outside the studio even saw it. It failed to hold onto its original writer-director. It failed to please its replacement director, who bashed the film in the press. And it failed to be released in a timely fashion. The producers obviously hoped to repeat the success of 1979's The In-Laws, a film that shares two leads, a screenwriter and much more, but by the time it limped onto screens in 1986 pop-culture had moved on.

Big Trouble is unavoidably an odd duck of a movie, a Frankenstein's Monster stitched together from the contributions of three very different mad scientists: Bergman, Cassavettes, and the producers who re-cut the film. It's an extraordinarily odd film for Cassavettes to end his distinguished directorial career with, both because it's so different from the rest of his oeuvre and because it doesn't seem to belong to him. It's a weird little orphan disowned by many of the people responsible for its tortured creation.

So I went into Big Trouble with exceedingly low expectations and was pleasantly surprised. I should concede up front that I have not seen the 1979 version of The In-Laws (note to self: see the original In-Laws). I hear good things about it but I don't want it to taint my treasured memories of the 2003 remake with Ryan Reynolds (and to a lesser extent, Albert Brooks and Michael Douglas). So I'm a lot less inclined to complain that Big Trouble is nothing more than a big In-Laws rip-off than the film's legion of fans.

If Big Trouble owes a great deal to The In-Laws it owes even more to Double Indemnity, another clear model. Big Trouble is essentially Double Indemnity remade as a manic farce. An undercurrent of pitch-black humor runs through many classic noirs so all Big Trouble has to do is ratchet the craziness up about 15 percent to transform Billy Wilder's classic exploration of the seamiest recesses of the human psyche into a zippy comedy of errors.

Alan Arkin here plays the Fred MacMurray role, a jittery, tightly-wound insurance agent desperate to raise the funds to send his beloved triplets to Yale. When Arkin asks boss/Harvard alum Robert Stack to pull some strings to help him out Stack gives him a hilariously incongruous speech about the importance of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps despite leading Arkin through a secret vault that houses a gaudy aggregation of solid-gold luxury items. (If you look closely you can briefly catch a glimpse of my editor Keith's freshly shined solid-gold hat.)

On a sales trip one evening Arkin stumbles into a dodgy but attractive opportunity when half-assed femme fatale Beverly D'Angelo ropes him into a scheme to put her ostensibly terminally ill husband (Peter Falk) out of his misery, then cash in his double-indemnity insurance policy for millions.

Big Trouble brings together an impressive array off great character actors: the aforementioned Arkin, Falk and Stack, Paul Dooley, Richard Libertini, and especially Charles Durning, who is very, very funny in the Edgar G. Robinson role of the corpulent smoothie of an insurance investigator who smells a rat the size of King Kong early on and spends much of the second half of the film bound and gagged.

Much of what makes the film so unexpectedly endearing is that Falk's incorrigible drifter seems motivated less by greed than by a boyish spirit of adventure gone horribly awry. He goes about his increasingly dirty business with a disarming casualness, treating insurance fraud, theft and various scams as nothing more than more than colorful ways to make a buck. D'Angelo's would-be femme fatale is similarly ditzy and misguided more than evil. Would a truly diabolical femme fatale loudly express her desire to abandon a money-making plan to accept a gig doing a dinner-theater version of Man Of La Mancha opposite Dick Cavett, as D'Angelo does here?

Arkin proves a great straight man in addition to delivering one of the greatest spit takes in modern cinema: after being given a special sample of Falk's beloved "sardine liqueur" Arkin spurts forth regular streams of vile liquid at regular, even rhythmic intervals. What makes the scene so funny is that Arkin plays it as drama as well as comedy: he really wants to avoid offending Falk by spitting out his favorite drink but he can't swallow it down either, leading to one of the longest spit takes in memory, an epic tour de force of physical comedy.

Farces and noirs both tend to be tightly scripted but in its third-act Big Trouble gets hella lazy. When the insurance fraud doesn't pan out Arkin and Falk are reduced to half-assed attempts to rob Stack, first at home and then at his office. Psychologically Arkin's behavior doesn't make much sense either. He morphs from jittery straight-arrow-gone awry to reasonably competent criminal with a disconcerting abruptness that reeks of post-production meddling. Arkin apparently suffers a psychotic break late in the film but that just feels like lazy screenwriting.

Big Trouble is unexpectedly funny and engaging but it doesn't particularly feel like a Cassavettes film. It doesn't boast much visual style at all, which isn't necessarily a bad thing when it means the film is focused more on characters, gags and performances rather than elaborate mise en scene or jazzy editing. I'm afraid I'm on vacation all this week (greetings from wine country!) so I haven't been able to do as much research into the film as I'd like to. So I'll throw this question out to you: how is Big Trouble treated in documentaries and biographies about Cassavettes? How involved did he appear to be?

Who does Big Trouble ultimately belong to? Cassavettes? Bergman? Meddling Producers? The angels? The ages? Some pretentious jackass doing an online project about cinematic failure? I guess it belongs to everyone and no one. Big Trouble is a rare instance of too many cooks resulting in a surprisingly savory broth.


Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success