Dave Barry’s first novel for adults, Big Trouble, had everything necessary to prompt a big-screen adaptation: young love, hitmen, unwitting and bumbling fighting families, the threat of nuclear war, and a mid-flight airplane explosion for a climax. A decade after Big Trouble hit the screen as a Tim Allen comedy, Barry is back with a slick, amped-up bookend that outdoes his first effort, but shows no authorial maturation. This time, Barry and co-author Alan Zweibel emailed chapters back and forth, alternating short epistolary chapters from the perspective of two dads from New Jersey. Instead of providing a creative spark, that stylistic maneuver cripples Lunatics with not one, but two annoying narrators trapped inside an overwrought story.
Zweibel’s Philip is a mild-mannered part-time soccer referee, and the owner of a pet shop named The Wine Shop, for gratuitous comedic effect. After an offside call at a young girl’s soccer game, Barry’s character Jeffrey adamantly protests. Their argument continues off the field, escalating from heated words to animal theft, carjacking, and a highway chase into Manhattan that ends with a helicopter explosion that brands the two fighting men as potential terrorists and suspected al-Qaeda members. Now on the run, Philip and Jeffrey stow away on a nude cruise ship, which they accidentally highjack, before ending up in Cuba, Africa, the Middle East, and China, having run-ins with rebel armies, top-secret U.S. military forces, modern pirates, terrorists, and more.
The two become known as “Fantasmas De La Noche” as they pop up across the globe in every location important to current American foreign policy, unwittingly solving crises and inciting uprisings against oppressive regimes. Of course, their antics only solve the handful of massive global crises that are of national interest to the United States.
The never-ending strings of unfortunate coincidences that predictably twist into good fortune play out like hackneyed attempts to describe a game of Mouse Trap played by Mr. Magoo. The hijinks are telegraphed setpieces, already designed to hit all the right points for a too-big-budget Hollywood anti-buddy comedy.
Jeffrey is Barry’s id unleashed, the kind of red-hot-blooded misogynist who thinks “Women… amiright?” is a great joke. Philip is an effete, detached husband and father who falls for a nun, remains passive throughout the story, and can never believe the accidents that serendipitously save his and Jeffrey’s lives. Neither character is likeable, and the desperate grasps at comedy fall flat. Any commentary on global issues contained in the protagonists’ madcap journey is buried beneath so many layers of winking and scatological humor that it’s rendered irrelevant.
Steve Carell is already lined up to play Philip in a film adaptation of Lunatics, and for once, the rush to the screen might not be such a bad thing. The novel’s most grating element is the narrators’ internal monologue, constantly griping and diverting into ranting tangents. (Zweibel is less of a culprit in this regard than Barry.) In a film, those internal thoughts would hopefully be excised, and what’s left could be an international romp combining Date Night and Dinner For Schmucks. Anyone with a passing interest in Lunatics should wait patiently for a movie release date.