“Big Trouble,” based on humor columnist Dave Barry’s first novel, is an Elmore Leonard-esque tale of an ad agent, Russian weapons dealers, hit-men, corrupt contractors, high school kids with squirt guns and a search for a mysterious suitcase, which everyone, including the FBI, is desperate to find.

Charles Goddeeris
A simpler time, when nuclear-bomb-in-airport jokes and Tim Allen were funny.
[Courtesy of Touchstone Pictures]

With an ensemble cast of bizarre characters and fast-paced, quirky dialogue, Director Barry Sonnenfeld turns Barry’s sarcastic and hilarious writing into a rehash of “Get Shorty,” and although much of the humor is preserved from the book, it doesn’t transfer to film as well as most stories of this type.

The plot is like that of a Carl Hiassen novel cranked up a few notches, with characters who have nothing in common being thrown together. Trying to give a plot synopsis is an exercise in futility, but the basic plot concerns Elliot Arnold (Tim Allen), an unhappy advertising agent who as to deal with fat, sweaty clients from Hell on a daily basis. When his son Matt (Ben Foster) tries to shoot a classmate Jenny Herk (Zooey Deschanel, “Almost Famous”) with a squirt gun for an assassin-type game at school, he must go to the home of Jenny’s step-father Arthur’s (Stanley Tucci “Sidewalks of New York”), where Matt has been attacked by Jenny’s mother Anna (Rene Russo “The Thomas Crown Affair”), who thought that Matt was actually trying to kill Jenny.

However, they are surprised to find that in the commotion, a bullet somehow found its way in the house and into Arthur’s TV. It turns out that Arthur’s employers have hired two hit-men (Dennis Farina and Jack Kehler) to kill him for embezzlement. Two dirtball drifters (Tom Sizemore and Johnny Knoxville), a good-natured homeless man with a penchant for Fritos named Puggy (Jason Lee) and two less-than-traditional cops (Janeane Garofalo and Patrick Warburton) are also involved in tangential plot lines intertwined with the “main” story.

The major problem with “Big Trouble” is that it lacks what makes the book so enjoyable – Barry’s unique, deadpan descriptions, which apply logic to completely illogical situations. Although screenwriters Robert Ramsey and Matthew Stone (no, not the South Park co-creator) tried to preserve the narration with voiceovers by Tim Allen, the action in the film isn’t as funny as the presentation in the book.

The characters are mostly entertaining, especially Dennis Farina, as the cranky, sarcastic, smile-before-he-punches-you-in-the-face tough guy (basically a version of his roles from “Get Shorty,” “Midnight Run,” “Snatch” and … well, just about any movie he has been in.) Stanley Tucci is excellent as usual in an over-the-top way, and Zooey Deschanel plays the surly teenager perfectly.

Sonnenfeld tries to make this a screwball comedy with spontaneous action and strange plot-twists, but it never really takes off. While you are still waiting for the film to really get going, it’s already ending. It seems that when the writers ran out of material, they just repeated the same jokes in different settings. Barry did this to some degree in the book, but he was able to make it work because of his keen sense of timing.

“Big Trouble” is part of the Sept. 11 Hollywood fallout, which forced studios to shelve movies with events even remotely related to terrorism.

Since the film deals with the incompetence of airport security, a bomb on an airplane and many other touchy subjects, Buena Vista Pictures had to re-shoot certain sequences, but the film has not been drastically altered. However, the film’s paltry estimated box office gross this weekend ($3.7 million) shows that there is still some discomfort with certain subjects.

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