LOS ANGELES, April 4 (UPI) -- Make a list of all the outstanding prose stylists in America - your John Updikes, your Phillip Roths, your Tom Wolfes - and the one superb writer you are almost guaranteed to overlook is Dave Barry.
Dave Barry ... the humor columnist? I'm serious. Nobody since P.G. Wodehouse (of "Bertie & Jeeves" immortality) has come closer to making every single sentence funny.
Yet, even I didn't expect much from his first novel, "Big Trouble," which is now a high velocity ensemble comedy. As the always self-demeaning Barry put it in his preface, "I want to thank my editor who proposed the idea of me writing a novel... and I forgive him for the fact that he never told me that I would need to come up with characters and a plot."
I should have realized, though, that Barry was no newcomer to character creation. For two decades, Barry has been honing his semi-autobiographical / semi-fictional persona of "Dave" - the beer-drinking, time-wasting, regular guy who has the world's easiest job writing booger-centric humor columns - to mask his own fanatical craftsmanship.
I've only seen Barry drop the "Dave" facade once, in a quick email to Writer's Digest soberly explaining to people who think they'd love to have his job how he makes every line comical - by grueling work. "I spend a lot of time reading every sentence over and over again, focusing on details. I mean small details, like word choices. Very often, that's what is going to make an idea funny-sounding or not. It can be as detailed as using the word "got" instead of "received," for example... Try out many variations of phrases and words until you hit the right one."
I also assumed that Barry couldn't construct a plot, and would simply string together a meandering assortment of his hilarious social insights. I was wrong again. "Big Trouble" is ruthlessly plotted. It's a character-driven farce where a seemingly random cross-section of Floridians are propelled by their personality quirks into ever more convoluted collisions with each other and with a hallucinogenic toad, a herd of goats headed for sacrifice on Santeria altars, a black market Soviet nuclear bomb, and dopey airport security personnel. These carry-on luggage inspectors are quick to agree that the suitcase nuke is merely a "portable garbage disposal" so they can get back to their primary responsibility of tormenting laptop-toting middle-aged professionals.
Clearly, Barry borrows from crime novelist Elmore Leonard (author of "Get Shorty," a previous ensemble comedy by "Big Trouble's" director Barry Sonnenfeld) and his Miami Herald colleague Carl Hiassen, king of what the author calls the Bunch of South Florida Wackos Genre. Still, Barry, in his self-effacing way, has larger ambitions. "Big Trouble" resembles a lighter, sunnier, Miami version of Wolfe's monumental satire on New York City, "The Bonfire of the Vanities."
"Bonfire," of course, was also a monumental flop as a movie. To pare it down to two hours, the filmmakers jettisoned most of the vivid secondary characters to focus on Tom Hanks' dull leading role.
In contrast, the makers of "Big Trouble" stuck closely to Barry's book and hired a terrific ensemble. If there were an Oscar for Best Casting, this would be a contender. That doesn't mean "Big Trouble" will be a smash - actors love making ensemble flicks a lot more than mass audiences love watching them. Otherwise, ensemble film mainstay Stanley Tucci - who steals this movie as the weaselly bagman for a corrupt construction firm - would be a big star.
Several of the casting choices, such as Patrick Warburton as a muscle-headed cop and Dennis Farina as a suave New Jersey hit man who can't wait to escape Miami's madness, are near perfect. Other standouts include Andy Richter, Janeane Garofalo, Jason Lee, and Tom Sizemore.
Director Sonnefeld ("Men in Black") started out working for the Coen Bros. as their cinematographer, thus making him one of the few Jewish lensmen in that most Gentile of Hollywood specialties. So, "Big Trouble" looks amusing, with lots of fisheye lens shots to cartoonize the characters. James Newton Howard's jazz and Peruvian score sounds terrific.
The main shortcoming of the movie is that at only 85 minutes, it's too short, although that's a lot better than being too long. In the rush, some needed exposition is left out: Why exactly does Tucci want to buy a nuclear device? And much of Barry's satire got dumped, such as his bitter - and tragically prescient - denunciation of airport security policies for refusing to rationally profile passengers.
Tim Allen's voiceover narration gets the film off to a quick but clunky start. And the comic timing isn't always impeccable. Yet, by the close of the screening, "Big Trouble" had won not just applause, but also cheers and whistles.
Rated PG-13 for language, crude humor, and sex-related material.