REVIEW: GOOFBALL “BIG TROUBLE” SETS UP A LINKAGE OF LAUGHTER

Instant MTV category: Best toe-sucking scene. Winner: Stanley Tucci.

To know Tucci is to love him, and if you don’t know him, you’ll probably recognize him (“Big Night,” “Winchell,” Richard Cross in “Murder One”). If you don’t recognize him, you won’t forget him after you see him in “Big Trouble” as Arthur Herk, a herky-jerky wealthy sleaze who is understandably the target of an assassination.

Tucci is just one of an ensemble cast, and his toe-sucking of his unwilling and repulsed Mexican maid, Nina (Sofia Vergara), is one of many lunatic moments in the comedy, directed by Barry Sonnenfeld (“Get Shorty,” “Men in Black”).

The one person to introduce a logic in the madness, and who does the voice-over narration, is Tim Allen as former Miami Herald Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Eliot Arnold. (“Big Trouble,” by the way, is based on the book by current Miami Herald Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Dave Barry.) Arnold has left his job of 18 years, gotten divorced and opened an advertising agency, where he must placate blustering low-rent clients with a tawdry magnitude registering 9 on the Richter scale. His son, Matt (Ben Foster), lives with him, even though the teen-ager isn’t happy at the moment with their genetic connection.

Matt, though, is the one who unwittingly involves the Arnolds in the insane chain of events. He and pal Andrew (DJ Qualls) infiltrate the home of schoolmate Jenny Herk (Zooey Deschanel), who is Matt’s assigned squirt-gun target in a game called “Serial Killer.” That same night, two New York assassins, Henry (Dennis Farina) and Leonard (Jack Kehler), have come to off Herk, caught skimming by his corrupt construction company employers.

The antics are witnessed from a treetop vantage point by gentle Fritos-eating vagrant Puggy (Jason Lee), who has come to Miami after reading a Martha Stewart Living rave review of the town’s Cuban food. Puggy is one of the threads in the collision of characters, coincidence and chaos — that and a suitcase bomb. The bomb, by the way (which makes its way through airport security twice), is the scenario that postponed the comedy’s October 2001 opening date.

“Big Trouble” recalls the ensemble comedies of the ’70s, such as Peter Bogdanovich’s “What’s Up, Doc?” which in turn harkened back to the screwball comedies of the ’30s and ’40s, so its off-kilter pedigree isn’t too shabby. In a way, though, it’s less an ensemble than an intersection of partners. Andrew covers squirt-gun-toting Matt’s back, Anna Herk (Rene Russo) and daughter Jenny ally against slimy second husband and stepfather Arthur, Jesus figure Puggy and the Herks’ shapely Catholic maid Nina fall in love at first sighting, hired assassins are disgusted New York-fish-out-of-Miami-water, moron convicts Snake (Tom Sizemore) and Eddie (Johnny Knoxville) bond in their playground humor, Monica (Janeane Garofalo) is smart cop to her not-so-bright partner Walter (Patrick Warburton), while bomb-trackers Greer and Seitz (Omar Epps, Heavy D) pull the good FBI agent/bad FBI agent stunt. Even minor characters like Russian bar owners and co-pilots come in twos.

The pairings are not unconscious — after all, Puggy puckishly introduces “Big Trouble” with a passage alluding to Noah’s ark. Those without backup are loose cannons or losers, like the crooked Arthur and even Eliot, who needs to redeem himself.

Unfortunately, Allen as Eliot is the film’s weakest link. Pressure-cooker comedies work best with caricatures, and with only 85 minutes to cook, the ingredients have to be already prepped and ready to go. Director Sonnenfeld tends to abbreviate character development, which could always use another 10 minutes. As it is, Allen doesn’t quite pull off the beleaguered wordsmith and nice guy, and the Bunsen burner never heats up enough to make any chemistry between Allen and Russo.

Russo isn’t to blame; beneath her peroxide-blond locks beats the heart of a palpably elegant, smart woman — and even with the peroxide job, she’s still gorgeous. Buffed-up muscles aside, if Allen doesn’t have the looks, he has to have the charm, and if he doesn’t have the charm, he better have the wit — but if that mockingbird don’t sing, “Big Trouble” still is one of the funnier movies in town.

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