Elmore Leonard books are pretty much made for movies, and though you'd have to classify them as crime novels, the reason why is no mystery. Leonard creates funny, believable characters, writes them snappy movie-friendly dialogue -- practically a script's worth -- and he's completely at ease in the cinematically compatible world of the small-time crook.
It all seems to gel effortlessly in a scene early in The Big Bounce, the latest adaptation of a Leonard novel. Jack (Owen Wilson) is a breaking-and-entering man on the run from his troubles, recently canned at his straight construction-site gig in Hawaii and coaxed into a beach-house job by a ne'er-do-well pal. With an empty case of beer under his arm, he slips through the unlocked front door, notes the tenants cavorting obliviously in the surf, scoops up some wallets and, posing as a delivery man, calmly jukes out a visitor before making off with the loot. The scene's a pupu platter of Leonard's savvy, director George Armitage's unassuming craft and Wilson's sleepy, sun-bleached charm.
And through the first half of The Big Bounce, you see no reason it shouldn't all continue. Ordered to leave the island by his corrupt ex-employer, real-estate developer Ray Ritchie (Gary Sinise), Jack instead lands a gig with a sly old district judge named Walter Crewes (Morgan Freeman), who needs a maintenance man at his own seaside bungalow complex. Then Jack falls for Nancy (Sara Foster), a scrumptious, bikini-(and-less-)clad blonde who also happens to be Ray's underappreciated mistress. They meet crooked-cute -- on their first date, they steal Ray's car -- and then Nancy pulls Jack in on a little scheme to relieve her inattentive sugar daddy of $200,000.
Storywise, unfortunately, the set-up is as good as Big Bounce gets. Part of the problem is Foster, a former model who despite her good looks never generates much chemistry, sexual or otherwise, with her co-stars. Another might be the structure. Armitage has a short but respectable directorial resume including Miami Blues (1990) and Grosse Pointe Blank ('97), but working from an adapted screenplay by Sebastien Gutierrez, he's made a film whose pace is as laid back as the pedal-steel-heavy soundtrack: It just doesn't feel like it has any center.
On the other hand, with a good enough ensemble cast and a simpatico director, laid back can be right-on mellow. Charlie Sheen nails a character bit as Ray's irascible right-hand man, Bob Jr.; he's a beta male with resentment to burn, and Sheen, behind a bushy mustache, is hilarious. Willie Nelson and Harry Dean Stanton show up briefly, too, adding to the bonhomie. But the show really belongs to Wilson as the hapless patsy-hero and the ever-reliable Freeman, hip as always. With their help, the movie doesn't quite bounce, but it's fun enough watching it roll.