Follow the bouncing ball
Screwball crime story is pleasant, if light, take on Elmore Leonard novel
Halfway through The Big Bounce, an amiable thief (Owen Wilson) takes a call on a stolen cell phone. The caller is the owner of the phone, and she wants to know if there have been any messages from her boyfriend. The thief cheerfully tells her that a call did come in and the news is good, and then hangs up.
That’s a signature moment in this easy-going crime film with its laid-back attitude toward several kinds of theft. And, as such, it works nicely both as a set piece for which goofily resourceful Owen Wilson is perfectly cast and as an emblematic riff in a story whose unrushed crime plot repeatedly takes time out for something like a comedy of manners among several species of rogues and beach bums.
Adapted from an Elmore Leonard novel, the film sprawls and twists its way through an amusing clutter of crime-story elements—petty scams, a humorously casual burglary, assorted double crosses, a couple of devious seductions, and an off-again, on-again big-money caper that unravels into multiple complications. Director George Armitage and screenwriter Sebastian Gutierrez give the thing a light-hearted surface that doesn’t entirely conceal the darker sides of the characters’ behavior, and a certain (and perhaps somewhat misplaced) fondness for this gathering of rascals emerges in recurrent digressions like the one in which characters played by Wilson, Morgan Freeman, Willie Nelson, and Harry Dean Stanton bullshit each other during a sneaky-serious game of dominoes.
Although he seems fully and charmingly in his element throughout, Wilson’s surfer-dude innocence lightens things in a way that distracts from the darker undercurrents in Leonard’s tale. Armitage’s direction is complicit in this thinning out, but The Big Bounce still works very satisfactorily as a quirky sort of farce. Sara Foster, for example, never seems genuinely dangerous at the leggy bad girl in the story, but she and Wilson have plenty of screwball chemistry in the film’s nods to the criminal branch of romantic farce.
Charlie Sheen is good as a pseudo-suave scumbag, and Freeman seems to enjoy coasting through a role whose devil-may-care attitude gets more and more complicated. Nelson seems miscast as a police chief, and Bebe Neuwirth sort of goofs her way through the role of a half-hearted, co-dependant femme fatale. But they and the seemingly inebriated Stanton are all welcome presences anyway. That’s the kind of smartly larkish film they’ve got going here.