Big Trouble, Dave Barry

Berkley, 1999, 317 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-425-18412-9

Americans can do really strange things, sometimes.

Yes, I’m referring to the activities depicted in Dave Barry’s Big Trouble. But I’m also referring to the controversy surrounding the theatrical release of the filmed adaptation of the novel. Barry Levinson had produced a low-key amusing version of Big Trouble, starring such comedians as Tim Allen, Denis Farina, Rene Russo and the incomparable Janeane Garofalo. Everything was ready for a September 21st, 2001 release. And then…

Well, you may suspect the rest of the story. Some nuts smashed a few planes in a few buildings and suddenly, America wasn’t prepared to deal with, say, a story which very briefly features two dim criminals unwittingly passing a nuclear bomb through airport customs. Here, let me brazenly reproduce a most inflammatory passage:

Puggy picked up the suitcase and the little party headed down the concourse toward the planes. Behind them, the stern woman turned her attention to the next passenger, a pension actuary who was already, without having to be asked, turning his computer on, knowing that this was the price a free society had to pay to combat terrorism. [P.249]

Ooh… I’m offended. Well, okay, I wasn’t, and it turns out to be such an insignificant part of the book that it’s hard to imagine anyone getting bothered about it. And yet, Touchstone Pictures yanked the film off its schedule and quietly released it six months later. You would have thought everyone would be mature enough to handle it by then. Alas, reviews were scathing, everyone worked up a sweat decrying that tiny thirty-second sequence and the film flopped. Here, let me reprint part of Steve Rhodes’ moronic one-star review:

Originally set to open the week after 9-11, it was pulled by Disney, who thought, correctly, that kids were probably not ready to laugh at terrorists with nuclear bombs who hijack airplanes. They should have pulled the movie from theatrical release entirely and gone direct to video without any fanfare or marketing. Burning the print might have been an even better idea.

As one of the few to have seen the film in theaters (and, apparently, one of the fewer to have enjoyed it), I couldn’t pass up the occasion to read Dave Barry’s original novel. The first surprise was to find out how reasonably faithful the film was to the novel. The second surprise was to find out that there wasn’t much more to the novel than the film let on.

That’s right. Normally -especially in comedies-, the filmed version hacks off a lot of the flavor of the original. Reading the book after usually expand and deepen the filmed story. Not so much here: Most of the sequences in the film are present in the novel, and the very few changes made to the ending are probably changes that Barry would have made if he had thought of it first. (Most unusually, these changes strengthen the book’s pre-existing theme of father/son approbation)

But don’t think that these surprises somehow translate into a disappointment: Big Trouble, whether on screen or on paper, is well worth your while. The novel is deliciously written in a compulsively readable fashion; don’t bother packing a bookmark, because you probably won’t need one. This warped portrait of Miami-area residents is sufficiently off the wall to keep you glued to the novel. After years of hilarious newspaper columns, Barry proves to be adept at longer comedy, though it should be said that this novel-length comedy is often pulled together from a string of related vignettes.

In any case, Big Trouble is Big Fun (but don’t quote me on this, given that I just stole that line off the opening blurb pages). Fans of madcap crime thrillers are sure to enjoy this, as is anyone looking for novel-length comedy. It’s up to the Barry standard.

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