Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The fourth season of FX’s small-screen Fargo starts, so we’re singling out “Coenesque” movies, i.e. ones influenced by or imitative of the work of those famous sibling filmmakers.
To the extent that it’s remembered at all, Big Trouble might be best-known for being one of a handful of movies that were pushed from fall 2001 until spring 2002 because of the September 11th terrorist attacks, after which movies with even a hint of terrorist-related plots (no matter how silly) were briefly considered too hot to handle. Its connection to a bestselling novel by Dave Barry doesn’t really help its profile, given its generic title. The Miami setting lends it a superficial resemblance to second-tier Elmore Leonard or Carl Hiaasen.
So it’s easy to overlook the degree to which Big Trouble also resembles a Coen brothers comedy; it’s even directed by former Coens cinematographer Barry Sonnenfeld. Upon closer examination, though, the connections aren’t especially subtle. In its opening moments, the movie presents straight-to-camera narration from an oddball figure with prominent facial hair (with Jason Lee’s tree-dwelling Puggy subbing in for the laconic Sam Elliott character from Big Lebowski) and a fat man bellowing abusively at the film’s hero from across a desk. In a stunning upheaval of expectations, the desk belongs to regular-guy hero Eliot Arnold (Tim Allen), rather than the bellower.
Eliot is a ex-newspaper columnist turned one-man ad agency who crosses paths with a Coens-like assortment of dim-bulb criminals, irritated hitmen, and level-headed cops when his son Matt (Ben Foster) accidentally crashes the attempted murder of sleazy arms dealer Arthur Herk (Stanley Tucci). On the bright side, Herk’s long-suffering wife, Anna (Rene Russo), takes an obvious liking to Eliot, just as her daughter, Jenny (Zooey Deschanel), takes a (less explicable) liking to Matt. Various combinations of characters wind up racing to track down a nuclear warhead at the Miami airport, and along the way the dialogue has some Barry-level zingers, which is a critical term meaning “sometimes funny lines that can’t match Leonard or the Coens for consistency, invention, or poetry.”
Still, Sonnenfeld has a feel for farcical repetitions, and the movie’s running gags—like an ongoing, utterly circular radio call-in debate between a host and an obstinate Gators fan, or the way that every time Matt brandishes a water gun, someone else winds up firing a real bullet in his vicinity—enhance its Florida setting. There’s an amusing (and very Barry) thread about the ubiquity of casual TV-watching, as several characters repeatedly cite the Discovery Channel or Travel Channel as sources for their exposition, while others stare balefully at television sets that have been rendered useless by slapstick mayhem. The movie also offers the recurring, retroactive pleasures of placing its supporting players exactly into their usual roles for the time period: Dennis Farina is no-nonsense and irritable (he recycles his disdain for Miami from his disdain for England in Snatch), Zooey Deschanel is deadpan, Janeane Garofalo is exasperated, Patrick Warburton is a squinty parody of masculinity, Johnny Knoxville is a knucklehead, and Ben Foster is terribly miscast as a likable teen.
The movie fits onto the Coen continuum with similar time-capsule ease. With its brisk laughs and minor consequence, Big Trouble is compatible with the movies Joel and Ethan were about to make at the time of its release: Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers. Even compared to lower-tier Coen efforts, there are noticeable differences. In addition to missing his one-time collaborator’s ear for mellifluous dialogue, Sonnenfeld’s film lacks their pitiless yet affectionate eye, which would not look upon Eliot with such obvious author flattery. He’s portrayed as charming, wittily self-effacing, and irresistible to Rene Russo, the kind of characterization that feels especially labored when Tim Allen is acting it out (though Russo maintains her near-perfect track record of having at least some chemistry with every co-star she’s ever laid eyes upon). Maybe his lightweight presence is a blessing in disguise; if Eliot were played by William H. Macy, the movie might play like a ripoff, rather than an amusing, unconscious homage.