Memo to Hollywood: Retire 'Big Trouble'

Something about the title "Big Trouble" means ... big trouble. The great director John Cassavetes used it in 1985 for the last (and worst) movie of his otherwise illustrious career.

Now it's working its hex on Barry Sonnenfeld, who isn't likely to have another "Men in Black" on his hands when the weekend's box office numbers come in.

To be fair to Cassavetes, he stepped into his "Big Trouble" as replacement for another director after the movie was in production, and always regretted having his name attached to it.

Sonnenfeld's excuse may be that he has too many irons in the fire, with "Men in Black 2" due for a July 3 debut. Whatever the reason, he manages to rustle up precious little excitement and even fewer laughs in his current opus, based on Dave Barry's novel.

This is surprising, given the movie's big-name cast and two subplots – about bumbling thugs and prowling secret agents – that might have produced hilarious results if the auteur of "Get Shorty" and "Men in Black" had been paying real attention to the project.

One main character is a former journalist (Tim Allen) now earning a precarious living in the advertising business.

Another is a sleazy businessman (Stanley Tucci) who acquires a mysterious suitcase in an equally sleazy Miami saloon.

Also in the picture are his unhappy wife (Rene Russo) and bored-stiff daughter (Zooey Deschanel), two hitmen hired to whack him (Dennis Farina, Jack Kehler), two idiotic crooks (Tom Sizemore, Johnny Knoxville), two idiotic FBI men (Omar Epps, Dwight "Heavy D" Myers), two ill-matched cops (Janeane Garofalo, Patrick Warburton), and a deliciously shaggy Airedale who gives one of the movie's few credible performances.

That's a lot of twos, perhaps explaining why the film begins with a tree-dwelling narrator (Jason Lee) talking about Noah's ark. According to the movie's publicity, the filmmakers wanted to make a comedy about couples.

But there's so little chemistry between these pairs – romantic, humorous, dramatic, whatever – that this theme never picks up a shred of energy or conviction.

Nor does the film offer any meaningful satire of our contemporary world, although it tries awfully hard. Not since the 1950s heyday of Frank Tashlin have there been more jibes at the media in a Hollywood movie, complete with a running motif of insipid radio broadcasts and people walloping TV screens.

Other material presents trickier issues. Is there legitimate humor to be mined from plot devices like a nuclear bomb on an airplane and airport guards so oblivious they never notice it?

Stanley Kubrick and Billy Wilder turned sardonic gazes on similarly dark material in "Dr. Strangelove" and "One, Two, Three," respectively. But their aim was penetrating wit, not vulgar farce.

There's a lot of difference.

Originally slated for release a few months ago, "Big Trouble" was delayed by Walt Disney Pictures after the Sept. 11 attacks. The studio evidently feels Americans have recovered enough to handle the movie's more discomforting scenes. What remains discomforting is their sheer failure to be funny.

Big trouble, indeed. Memo to Hollywood: Retire that title for another few decades, at least!

• Rated PG-13; contains comic sex and violence.

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