The Big Bounce

(George Armitage, USA, 2004)


The understated release of this enjoyable movie may indicate that, six or seven years after Out of Sight (1998) or Jackie Brown (1997), the fad for adapting Elmore Leonard novels to the screen had well and truly passed.

The Big Bounce was the book that announced Leonard’s change of direction into crime fiction. It was reportedly rejected by eighty-eight publishers and, in retrospect, it’s not impossible to see why. It is an extremely whimsical story that slyly circumvents most generic rules, and the film respects this sensibility.

Jack (Owen Wilson) is an amiable guy out of work in Hawaii. He is also a petty crim and a bit of a sneaky peeping tom. Drawn to the good-looking, no-nonsense opportunist Nancy (Sara Foster), Jack begins cooking up a way to rob the guy she hangs out with, shifty businessman Ray (Gary Sinise).

Typically for a Leonard story, the caper plot is only a thin pretext for the relaxed study of characters and their lifestyles. Walter (Morgan Freeman), for example, is a law enforcer who takes a shine to Jack and offers him fatherly advice, while Alison (Bebe Neuwirth), Ray’s wife, spends her affluent afternoons in a boozy haze. And Bob Jr (Charlie Sheen), Ray’s hapless flunkey, is one of those paunchy eternal losers.

Director George Armitage doesn’t get to work very often. Between his debut in 1970s B movies and The Big Bounce, he has made only Miami Blues (1990) and Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), both off-beat, respected pieces. Like Bob Rafelson or James B. Harris, he is one of those unostentatious American termite artists who work sly variations on a given formula.

Armitage is more artisan than auteur, but that is no reason to overlook the fineness of his craft. He brings everything together here beautifully: a well-constructed script by Sebastian Gutierrez (Judas Kiss [1998]), a successfully jaunty score by George S. Clinton, many stirring views of Hawaiian beaches, and a bunch of idiosyncratic characters who tangle and disentangle in ways that we can never quite foresee.

© Adrian Martin March 2004

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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