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Despite his fixations on exploding animals, low-flow toilets, and good names for rock bands, Dave Barry is a master of subtlety. In his weekly syndicated column and collections of essays, the humorist knows exactly when to step back and let the idiots of the world speak for themselves. No matter how outre the topic, Barry’s understated commentary is just the right finishing touch. Big Trouble, on the other hand, the movie based on Barry’s first novel, is woefully lacking in the nuances that would have prevented its comedy from plummeting from screwball to screw-up; there’s nothing here even half as effective as the book’s graceful opening line: “Puggy had held down his job at the Jolly Jackal Bar and Grill, which did not have a grill, for almost three weeks.” With Eliot (Tim Allen as the fictional Barry) narrating, the mess begins when his son, Matt (a perfectly sarcastic Ben Foster), and Matt’s friend Andrew (DJ Qualls, the dweeby kid from Road Trip) set out to “kill” Jenny Herk (Zooey Deschanel) with a Super Soaker one evening and stake out the Herk family manse. That same night, a couple of hit men (Dennis Farina, the most reliable source of laughs, pretty much reprising his Get Shorty character, and Jack Kehler) are looking to knock off Jenny’s dad, Arthur (an unfunnily smarmy Stanley Tucci). To sum up the rest of the setup would be tiresome, but allow me to get the principals in: Anna Herk (Rene Russo), who’s sick of her husband and takes a liking to Eliot; Puggy (Jason Lee), a homeless guy who lives in the Herks’ tree and witnesses much of the mayhem; a none-too-smart pair of cops (Janeane Garofalo and Patrick Warburton, both woefully underused); and a none-too-smart pair of dirtbag troublemakers (Johnny Knoxville, perhaps taking a Jackass bet, and Tom Sizemore) who unintentionally rob the dirtbag Jolly Jackal of a suitcase bomb. There are also a fucked-up dog and a psychedelic frog, the only touches that remind us that this is a Barry story and therefore supposedly more of a parody of a things-gone-wrong comic caper than just a careless throwing together of wannabe-quirky characters. As for the scenes that kept the movie on the shelf because of post-Sept. 11 sensitivity, well, they range from obviously ridiculous to rather disturbing—but I can’t argue that it’s inappropriate to end the hijinks of Big Trouble with a bomb. —Tricia Olszewski