It is said by people who say such things that no great films are made in Hawaii, because actors in search of a working vacation in paradise end up doing a whole lot of vacationing and very little work. (By "vacationing," I of course mean "smoking a fuckload of Maui Wowee.") 2004's The Big Bounce, today's entry in My Year Of Flops, does little to disprove this theory. Though it has its ramshackle charms, the film washed up at theaters DOA. It got almost universally negative reviews, and grossed a fraction of its $50 million budget.
The film has the distinction of being the second failed adaptation of a single novel, in this case Elmore Leonard's 1969 novel of the same name. Sometimes embarrassing, sometimes spectacular, Elmore Leonard movies have become a subgenre unto themselves. But the moment Owen Wilson signed to play the male lead, the film stopped being an Elmore Leonard movie and became an Owen Wilson movie.
Wilson turns Leonard's protagonist—an ex-con petty criminal memorably named Jack Ryan—into a loveable goof. Then again, Wilson turns every character he plays into a loveable goof. If Wilson were to play Joseph Goebbels, audiences would wind up thinking, "Wow, I never knew Hitler's chief propagandist was such an amiable slacker."
Regardless of the role, Wilson always seems to be playing himself, a breezy, laconic dude rambling through life. As moviegoers, we feel like we know the real Wilson. That's why the news that he attempted suicide felt strangely like a betrayal. It was jarring to imagine that a man who moved through movies with such unselfconscious ease and good humor could be wracked by such ferocious demons offscreen.
Wilson tends to catch a lot of flak because his films, outside his work with Wes Anderson, tend to be lazy, shambling, and half-assed. Considering Wilson's seeming indifference to the quality of his films, his pursuit of coasting as a career strategy, and his compulsion to go after low-hanging fruit, the question isn't whether Wilson will exploit the runaway success of Marley & Me by doing another dog movie, but rather what kind of dog he'll be playing second fiddle to next. Will he go pop-art and bold with a Weimaraner, all-American with a frisky golden retriever, or goofy and international with a rascally little dachshund?
In Wilson's aggressively half-assed filmography, Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums—all of which he co-wrote, gaining lifetime-pass cred in the process—stand out as islands of meticulous craft in a vast ocean of "Dude, whatever, man." Dude-whatever-man certainly seems to be the prevailing philosophy behind The Big Bounce. Like so many of Wilson's just-good-enough vehicles, it's spectacularly lazy, in a strangely ingratiating way.
The Big Bounce begins with the first of many, many vertigo-inducing helicopter shots and travelogue-style splashes of local color. Then, Wilson's opening narration immediately establishes his character's wisecracking affability: "For a long time, I've been walking through life with my two pals, bad luck and bad choices. Fortunately, I'm a big believer in new beginnings, new friends, and running from my problems, so one day I decided to head for the islands. Aloha. I'm Jack."
So it is just a tad bit out of character when Wilson then takes a baseball bat to the head of hulking man-beast Vinnie Jones. But Wilson is acting entirely in self-defense. In the 1969 version of The Big Bounce, which I will be discussing in detail shortly, this gesture establishes that anti-hero Ryan O'Neal has an explosive capacity for violence. In the 2004 version, it's a throwaway gag. The idea of Wilson beating the crap out of Jones suggests a Chihuahua puppy brutalizing a full-grown grizzly. Besides, if Jones was threatening me and I had a bazooka at my disposal—a terrifyingly plausible scenario—I wouldn't think twice about using it.
This incongruous Wilson-on-Jones violence earns our scrappy Everydude a one-way trip to jail and an invitation to leave town the moment he's released. But a retired judge played by Morgan Freeman takes a shine to Wilson and hires him to work as a handyman and jack-of-all-trades at his bungalows. It's always a pleasure to see Freeman shake off the nobility and solemn gravity that characterize many of his performances, and The Big Bounce showcases Freeman at his loosest. In a sly nod to his sideline playing God or the voice of God, Freeman tells Wilson, "God is just an imaginary friend for grownups."
Wilson's fuzzy commitment to starting over and changing his ways echoes his Bottle Rocket dreamer's even more quixotic five-, 25-, and 75-year plans, but his vague desire to stay on the right side of the law dies an unmourned death when he meets Sara Foster, the mistress of local big shot Gary Sinise.
It should be noted that The Big Bounce contains more nudity than any PG-13 film in recent memory. The costume designer doesn't seem to realize that it's now possible to purchase women's clothing that covers the midriff. Foster is introduced sunbathing naked, and is seldom called upon to do anything more than look good in a bikini. Now, between the ages of 12 and 18, my chief criteria for analyzing any film went something like this:
1. Is there any nudity?
2. No, seriously, it's incredibly important for me to know. Is there any nudity?
3. I'm not kidding, I desperately, desperately need to know if there's any naked boobage, or if it's a complete waste of my time.
By my low, low adolescent standards, The Big Bounce would qualify as perhaps the greatest PG-13 film of this decade. Alas, I am no longer a 15-year-old in a state of perpetual hormonal overdrive, so I feel it is my duty to report that, naked or not, Foster is a black hole of suckage constantly dragging down a promising film. A hapless flunky played by a mustachioed Charlie Sheen delivers an astute assessment of Foster's low-rent charms when he praises/condemns her for being "a knockout—in a slutty kind of way." Even that seems generous.
Wilson always seems to be saying the first thing that pops into his head, but the spectacularly wooden Foster seems to be reading from an invisible script. During her first scene with Wilson, I thought, "Wow, I bet this is what her audition was like. Yet they gave her the part anyway." Foster is the engine that drives the film, the demon on Wilson's shoulder, the snake in a Hawaiian garden of Eden, and also a skanky-hot broad trying to get Wilson to do criminal shit. (Sorry, I sort of ran out of metaphors there.) Yet Foster never emerges as anything more than a petulant overgrown child adept at manipulating weak-willed men, a brat playing at being a tease.
The Big Bounce was supposed to be a star-making vehicle for Foster, a former fashion model (surprise, surprise), former host of a short-lived Entertainment Tonight spin-off called ET On MTV, former fiancé of George Hamilton's son Ashley, and the daughter of pop schlockmeister David Foster. Instead, the film was a dead end. Foster's post-Bounce credits include Bachelor Party 2 (a film that cleared up all the lingering questions left by the original), a role as herself as one of Vinnie Chase's army of conquests on Entourage, and D.E.B.S., a film that answers the question, "How can a movie about teenage lesbian secret agents in Catholic-schoolgirl outfits be no fucking fun at all?"
Freeman warns/tantalizes Wilson that Foster is "One of those poor, unfortunate girls who's turned on by the criminal type," and before long, Wilson and Foster are breaking into houses together for the sheer erotic thrill of doing what they aren't supposed to. Adrenaline junkie Foster keeps raising the stakes until she's roped Wilson into a scheme to steal $200,000 in blood money from an uncharacteristically dull Sinise, whose sole contribution to the film is a thick Chicaga accent redolent of Polish sassages, deep-dish pizza, and Wrigley Field.
Bounce breezes by on its protagonist's goofball charm and a smattering of funny lines and clever gags, but it has all the suspense, kinetic energy, and forward momentum of a documentary about the Dewey Decimal System. It's a soft-boiled take on a hard-boiled yarn, a nasty little Elmore Leonard story transformed into an easy-breezy Owen Wilson comedy.
Once again, Wilson redeems shaky material. There's a clever bit where Wilson answers a cell-phone call from the person whose phone he's stolen. The only mildly indignant caller on the other end inquires whether her boyfriend has called, and Wilson relays a perhaps-apocryphal message from the boyfriend that's so reassuring and warm, the victim all but forgets that she's lost her phone. That's the essence of Wilson's character: Even the people he rips off can't help but like him.
In another standout sequence, one of Wilson's buddies comes to him for help, and Wilson delivers this wry speech:
Yeah, we're friends. But, you know, it's the type of friendship where if you're in trouble, I probably won't be there for you. Just like I wouldn't expect you to be there for me. It's a more honest friendship. It's not this, like, phony thing. It's a genuine friendship. I can't trust you. You can't trust me. I'm not gonna take a bullet for you. I'm not gonna jump on a grenade for you.
The irony is that the friend does end up taking a bullet for Wilson, but not of his own free will.
As The Big Bounce ambles into its third act, it falls apart. The climactic heist elements feel like a lazy afterthought. It's less a big bounce than a massive shrug. Director George Armitage, whose credits include the wonderful Charles Willeford adaptation and New Cult Canon entry Miami Blues—the film The Big Bounce should have been—and the nifty dark comedy Grosse Point Blanke, understandably seems more interested in a dominos game between Freeman, Willie Nelson, Harry Dean Stanton, and Owen Wilson than in the thriller mechanics of who kills whom, who scams whom, and who walks away with the loot.
The Big Bounce's greatest strength is that it intermittently captures what it might be like to hang out, play dominoes, and drink Wild Turkey with Nelson, Wilson, Stanton, and Freeman in Hawaii with the sun setting on another perfect day. Its biggest weakness, other than the yawning talent-vacuum that is Sara Foster, is that it never aspires to do anything more than that. Like so many of Wilson's movies, it's enjoyable without being particularly good.
1969's The Big Bounce hit theaters and died a quick critical and commercial death before Leonard's novel was even published, so audiences could be forgiven for mistaking it for a novelization of the movie instead of the book that inspired it.
Where Owen Wilson oozes likeability, his counterpart in the 1969 Big Bounce, Ryan O'Neal, is perhaps the least likeable actor ever to attain the giddy heights of superstardom. Over the holiday break, I finally got around to watching Love Story, and I spent much of it willing both of its obnoxious leads dead with my mind. Love means never… Oh, shut the fuck up.
Where the 2004 The Big Bounce seems primarily concerned with not harshing anyone's mellow, its predecessor is a nasty piece of work. Armitage's Bounce has about as much to say about class, race, sex, and power in Hawaii as Elvis' Paradise, Hawaiian Style, but the 1969 Big Bounce is refreshingly class-conscious.
Like the 2004 version, Alex March's Bounce follows an ex-con (Ryan O'Neal) who is paid off and instructed to leave town the moment he leaves prison. Rather than split, O'Neal agrees to work as a handyman for a wily old judge (Van Heflin), and he quickly gets entangled in the web of the nymphet mistress (Leigh-Taylor Young) of local bigshot James Daly.
Taylor-Young doesn't just play a sexy girl toying sadistically with the hearts and libidos of men understandably rendered weak-kneed and tongue-tied in her presence; she is sex incarnate, a volcanic force of nature, a femme fatale with ice water coursing through her veins. Taylor-Young is all too cognizant of the mind-clouding, judgment-impairing effect her overripe sexuality, penchant for nudity, and microscopic wardrobe have on men. It's the source of her precocious, precarious power, but it's a supremely limited power.
There is a scene of sinister, devastating impact and pitch-black humor where Taylor-Young briefly flinches at being whored out to a senator, and the creepily paternal Daly cuts her down to size with "You know, Nancy, if I had to replace you, it might take me almost a week." Don't feel too sorry for her, though: Taylor-Young is a whore, a sociopath, a thief, and a murderer. Those are four of her more admirable traits. In the '69 Bounce, sex and criminality aren't just inextricably intertwined, they're practically the same thing.
Taylor-Young delivers a performance of fearless sexuality and delirious abandon. She's absolutely mesmerizing, as is Lee Grant as a heartbreakingly fragile single mother with whom O'Neal dallies. In its superior first half, The Big Bounce excels as a pitch-black comedy about dark deeds and evil desires under the big California sun, but as it moves into conventional thriller territory in its third act, the bitter laughs dry up, the film turns humorless and dour, and every actor who shares a frame with O'Neal upstages him.
Though the plot points are largely the same, the tones of the two films are radically different. One director looked at Leonard's novel and saw a shaggy comedy. The other saw a cynical, sun-baked noir with a bracingly nasty view of human nature. Leonard hated both adaptations, and critics and audiences followed suit. If you could combine the best aspects of both films—Wilson's affability, Taylor-Young's fearless sexuality, Grant's tragic heft, Daly's gentlemanly evil, and Freeman and Heflin's cantankerous charm—you'd come away with a Big Bounce to rival the best Leonard adaptations. Alas, that technology doesn't exist yet. Oh well. Maybe the third time will be a charm.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success:
2004 Big Bounce: Super-Shaggy Sorta Secrety Type Success
1969 Big Bounce: Secret Failurecess