When I heard The Big Bounce was a leisurely, plot-deficient comedy, I considered it an invitation. For me, character, point of view, dialogue, and mood have always been more important than “plot.” Elmore Leonard, whose novel inspired The Big Bounce, knows this well; his crime stories are less notable for the crimes themselves than who commits them, and where. And yet, the movie is not without a story, exactly. Rather, it refuses to tell its story, to a degree that borders on experimental.
Jack (Owen Wilson) is a low-key thief in Hawaii, looking for a scam after getting fired from a construction job. He winds up working for district judge Walter Crewes (Morgan Freeman), doing odd jobs and gazing at Nancy (Sara Foster), the hooker mistress of the construction magnate (Gary Sinise). Heists almost get pulled, fates almost intersect, but not quite. The movie meanders like Owen Wilson’s trademark dialogue.
This makes for some sporadic fun. There is a certain sense of achievement in a movie that actually casts the famously laidback Wilson as a surfer. It’s not hard to imagine The Big Bounce as a portrait of what it really might like to spend a few days with Wilson (or his persona), wandering around Hollywood (or an Elmore Leonard movie), engaging in some amusing chats with Freeman and some fisticuffs with Charlie Sheen.
But we don’t learn much in the way of specifics about this Hawaiian island, or at least nothing beyond what’s revealed in the first 10 minutes, that locals are protesting the construction job Jack loses, that Walter is not only a judge, but also the owner of a small group of bungalows, and that real estate is at issue. These threads are never explored. The best Leonard-based movies show such a strong understanding of criminals, even petty ones, and their locales. What happened here?
Location-specific details are largely forgotten in favor of Jack’s relationship with Nancy, whose motives remain hazy. The femme fatale is a staple of the crime movie, but the many scenes between Jack and Nancy lazily circle the idea of banter without ever committing to it; Wilson looks more comfortable riffing with the other guys in the picture (there as a long sequence where Jack and Nancy spend the day together and he looks too dumbfounded to advance further; this would be funnier if the sequence weren’t a good 10 minutes long).
Meanwhile, a real story (about the characters’ loyalties and betrayals, the angles they may be playing) seems to be happening offscreen—not in an existential, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead sort of way, but in an out-of-money sort of way, as if the filmmakers couldn’t afford to shoot anything besides dialogue scenes, where characters speak in hypotheticals about what scams might be pulled. This discussion starts off deadpan, but nods off, occasionally stirring for a comic detail, like the whereabouts of Jack’s missing harmonica.
Wilson’s fans will doubtless enjoy some of these scenes, especially as an opportunity to see him outside of the buddy-comedy genre. But paint-by-numbers exercises like the underrated I Spy are enlivened by a veritable “un-actor” like Wilson. In The Big Bounce, he has nothing to work against, no structure to undermine, no hyperactive partners (like Jackie Chan or Eddie Murphy) to challenge. The lack of focus in The Big Bounce had me wishing for something I don’t usually need: a simple A-B-C story. Without one, amusing detours turn into wandering.