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Give Up the Funk 

What makes for a good Elmore Leonard adaptation? After all, the crime novelist is the very reason the word "funky" was invented, at least for anything literary. (Even my sixtysomething stepmother used the word, as in, "I don't like him very much; he's a little too funky for me.")

To make a good Elmore Leonard film, you need funky characters played by funky actors, a funky scenario and, of course, funky music. Give me an Elmore Leonard story, and I'll give you a loveable loser in over his head with a girl, a gun, an evil rival and a stash of cash.

At their best, Leonard adaptations are breezy, visually arresting, loose and unrepentantly disposable. It's no small coincidence, then, that three of the most visually savvy directors of our time have deftly tapped into Leonard's charm: Quentin Tarantino with Jackie Brown (an homage to Rum Punch), Steven Soderbergh with Out of Sight (possibly his tightest work), and Barry Sonnenfeld with Get Shorty. Each film features characters living on the fringe of society -- the good guys not so innocent, the bad guys not lacking in some kind of charm. Don Cheadle's Snoopy is just as engaging a villain as George Clooney's Jack Foley in Out of Sight, for instance; they have just as much chemistry as Clooney and Jennifer Lopez's Karen Sisco.

Which brings us to George Armitage trying to adapt The Big Bounce, which has all the ideas of a Leonard adaptation but none of its snap, sizzle or (most importantly) the F word. Armitage was smart enough to cast likeable actors such as Owen Wilson and Morgan Freeman, to shift the story from Michigan to Hawaii, and to cue up every scene with an exotic shot (surfers, condos) and a hip tune.

But Armitage breezes through the story so quickly and with such reflexive Leonard gestures that there's less there than meets the eye of even a Leonard story, and that's really saying something. Face it; Leonard's fun as hell to read, but there's very little meat on the bones. So when you get a facsimile of that, the term "wafer thin" comes to mind.

Speaking of wafer thin, Armitage, working with screenwriter Sebastian Gutierrez (the visionary behind Gothika), has decided to complicate the novel's rather simple plot about a drifter (Wilson) who gets tangled up in a plan to rip off developer Ray Ritchie (Gary Sinise) at the encouragement of the developer's mistress Nancy (newcomer Sara Foster). While Wilson is simply impossible not to like -- his Texas surfer-dude drawl, and his scruffy countenance, never fail to charm -- Armitage truly bungled in casting Foster. It's as if he gave her a Quirk Chart (hop-skip every eighth step, scrunch face, tease occasionally, roll eyes, etc.) to memorize and regurgitate on-camera.

Armitage and Gutierrez then crowd the film by getting Ritchie's boozing wife (Bebe Neuwirth) in on the act, while cameos by Willie Nelson and Harry Dean Stanton wreak of attempts at "street cred." At one point, Freeman, who plays Ryan's boss, warns him, "Sometimes, things are exactly as they appear. Sometimes." Oh, Morgan, if only you were right!

So, a few plot twists and 13 surfing shots later, we have a pretzel of an ending that ain't worth chewing over. Not even for a snack, and that's what Elmore Leonard is best at providing.

click to enlarge Jack Ryan (Owen Wilson) flirts with danger in the - form of Nancy (Sara Foster) in George Armitage's - adaptation of Elmore Leonard's The Big - Bounce.
  • Jack Ryan (Owen Wilson) flirts with danger in the form of Nancy (Sara Foster) in George Armitage's adaptation of Elmore Leonard's The Big Bounce.
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