Owen Wilson's sunny, lazy Big Bounce.

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Jan. 29 2004 5:23 PM

Beach Bum

Owen Wilson's sunny, lazy Big Bounce.

The Big Bounce falls flat
The Big Bounce falls flat

As I write this in New York, it's close to zero degrees with the wind chill, we've just had our latest winter storm, and for a spell it was so blissful to be sitting in a screening room staring at TheBig Bounce (Warner Bros.). The movie opens with shots of turquoise skies and white beaches and bronzed women in string bikinis against the mountainous northern coastline of Oahu. Then there's the sun-reddened, straw-haired Owen Wilson, with that cracked grin and that nose going every which way, and Morgan Freeman so supernaturally easy in a Hawaiian shirt. And did I mention the string bikinis?

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The first half-hour or so of this caper comedy, which is based on an Elmore Leonard crime novel, goes down like a strawberry daiquiri with a little umbrella. Early on, there's a fun patch of smart-ass dialogue between drifter/surfer/petty-thief Wilson and Charlie Sheen as the stuck-up son of a rich guy: Wilson has landed in jail after taking a Louisville Slugger to the jaw of a bigoted construction foreman, and Sheen tells him to leave the island, which is one incentive for him to stick around. The other is the awesomely lithe blonde Sara Foster, who bids him turn his back when she removes what little remains of her clothes for a nude swim to a waiting yacht: "I get shy at the weirdest times," she giggles. Wilson drives around in a red Mustang convertible past surfers and cliff divers, getting redder and blonder by the minute. Now Willie Nelson and Harry Dean Stanton show up, sharing a bottle of Wild Turkey; now Bebe Neuwirth totters on in as the pampered, perpetually tipsy wife of crooked developer Gary Sinise. And everyone looks so doggone happy to be there. You can hear their conversations with their agents: "Well, it's not much of a script—but eight weeks in Oahu? I mean, shiiiiit." You wonder how they ever got it up to make a movie.

Well, they didn't, quite. Just when I'd decided I was pleased as (rum) punch to be there, the movie's construction began to sag. There are weird non sequiturs, as if scenes had dropped out, and the actors start to look as if they're making it up as they go along. The director, George Armitage (Miami Blues), has a good feel for laid-back, hipster black comedy but no impulse whatsoever to keep the narrative moving. So, there's time to notice how dated a lot of these characters are and how generic and predictable the crosses and double-crosses. (This was Leonard's first foray into contemporary crime after a long career in Westerns. It was made into a 1969 movie with Ryan O'Neal and Leigh Taylor-Young—that was an era when everyone made caper comedies with tax-shelter money.)

There isn't really much more to say about this one, except that you might enjoy it in the proper state. Looking back over what's happened to him, Wilson says, "I swear I'm going to have to be sober to tell this story." But anyone watching it will want to have had a few.

David Edelstein is Slate's film critic. You can read his reviews in "Reel Time" and in "Movies." He can be contacted at slatemovies@slate.com.

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