"That joke isn't funny anymore."
Dir. Barry Sonnenfeld; writ. Dave Barry (novel) and Robert Ramsey (screenplay); feat. Tim Allen, Omar Epps, Dennis Farina, Ben Foster, Janeane Garofalo, Jason Lee, Rene Russo, Tom Sizemore (PG-13)
Here's compelling evidence that September 11 hysteria should never be allowed to abate. Were the U.S. of A. not currently renewing its love affair with benumbed denial, we might have been spared Big Trouble, a wearisome stab at screwball comedy that was pulled from last fall's release slate due to a few scenes that mine the alleged humor of an armed nuclear bomb being brought on board a commercial aircraft. Who decided that bomb-smuggling jokes are fair game again? And who decided that any time is the right time for this bomb?
Its explosive inappropriateness aside, Big Trouble is just another crappy ensemble picture that wastes a lot of respectable talent (including Patrick Warburton, Stanley Tucci, Dennis Farina, Jason Lee, and Andy Richter) on a story that's as solid and richly developed as a sneeze. Star Tim Allen is just about the only featured player living down to his potential in the role of Elliott Arnold, a Miami ad man whose untethered, post-divorce lifestyle brings him into contact with a cast of colorful characters fighting for control of the aforementioned thermonuclear device. The FBI, the police, the Russians and the mob all have a stake in determining who gets to own the weapon, but Arnold becomes the unlikely guardian of the peace. Can he keep the bomb out of criminal hands while repairing his frayed relationship with his son (Ben Foster) and making time with a neglected high-society housewife (Rene Russo)?
Adapted from the first novel by Miami Herald humor columnist Dave Barry, Big Trouble makes running gags out of worn-out gambits like foot fetishism and the hallucinogenic properties of toad secretions. Prince-of-all-hacks director Barry Sonnenfeld (Wild Wild West, Men in Black) races through the material, never pausing to develop a legitimate character or performance.
It's plain creepy to watch two bumbling crooks (Tom Sizemore and Johnny Knoxville) spirit the bomb past inept airport officials, but the civil-liberties contingent should take particular exception to a scene in which the heroic FBI men (Omar Epps and rapper Dwight "Heavy D" Myers) violently interrogate a pair of suspects, citing an "executive order" that permits them to tromp all over the rights of the not-yet-accused. Ha-ha, that joke's not funny any more. — Steve Schneider
"Pedestrian but inoffensive"
Dir. Carl Franklin; writ. Joseph Finder (novel) and Yuri Zeltser (screenplay); feat. Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, James Caviezel, Adam Scott, Amanda Peet, Bruce Davidson, Tom Bower (PG-13)
Most of us continue to like Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman no matter how many lame movies they wind up in, so it's satisfying to report that High Crimes represents a slight upward shift in their good-will-to-good-pictures ratio.
In this pedestrian but inoffensive thriller, Judd plays Claire Kubik, a hotshot San Francisco lawyer who's like a cinematic version of Marcia Clark: She has a killer wardrobe, a stylish head of cropped hair, and a can-do spirit that manifests itself in the occasional show of bird-flipping defiance. Claire's idyllic, carefully constructed existence is toppled when the FBI arrests her husband, Tom (Jim Caviezel), accusing him of being a fugitive military operative who murdered El Salvadoran civilians during a covert assignment in 1988. He denies the murder charges, but cops to the identity games. His real name, he admits to his wife, is not Tom Kubik but Ron Chapman.
Claire gets over this shock pretty quickly, and bravely steps up to commandeer her husband's defense in military court. For expert assistance, she turns to Charlie Grimes (Freeman), a self-professed wild card of an attorney whose intimate dealings with the Marines have left him suspicious of anyone in uniform. Together, these two underdog barristers poke holes in the government's case, uncovering a conspiracy that may reach to the upper echelons of the armed forces.
Much of what happens in High Crimes is utterly stupid, and almost all of it is derivative. But Judd and Freeman bring a zip to their characters that goes far beyond what's on the scripted page, and the film has a subtle populist undercurrent that's nearly subversive when placed in the current context. Almost all of the story's twists and turns support the old-fashioned leftie belief that civilian vigilance is the sole defense against widespread military corruption. This movie simply doesn't know there's a war on, and we're all the better for it. — Steve Schneider
National Lampoon's Van Wilder
"Gag me with a dog semen-stuffed pastry"
Dir. Walt Becker; writ. Brent Goldberg and David T. Wagner; feat. Ryan Reynolds, Tara Reid, Kal Penn, Tim Matheson, Kim Smith, Daniel Cosgrove, Tom Everett Scott (R)
From the toga star Ryan Reynolds sports in print ads to the stunt casting of Tim "Otter" Matheson to the brand name in the title, it's obvious the makers of the gross-out comedy Van Wilder want desperately to recall Animal House. But why? Not only can Van Wilder not help but pale in comparison (not something a savvy promoter wants to draw attention to), but it's doubtful that the 1978 comedy classic has any cachet with teen- and college-age audiences weaned on Britney Spears and There's Something About Mary anyway. Reynolds (formerly of ABC's Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place) stars as Van, a rich kid and rowdy party animal who's in his seventh year as an undergrad. Cut off financially by his disgusted dad (Matheson), Van brainstorms a new career as a party organizer (seems that geeks will pay him to throw righteous, well-attended soirées for them) to subsidize his education. Meanwhile, the fetching priss Gwen (American Pie's Tara Reid) is assigned by the school paper to tail the campus legend and blow the lid off the whole Van Wilder phenomenon. It's all pointless and predictable, with a bunch of particularly nauseating gags thrown in. Given that one stunt has Van stuffing his dog's semen into pastries he sends to a rival frat house, I'm using "gag" as both noun and verb. — Anita Schmaltz