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Tops in trouble

Funny filmmaker Barry Sonnenfeld runs with Dave Barry's first novel

Barry Sonnenfeld has directed some very funny movies, such as 'Men in Black,' 'Addams Family Values' and 'Get Shorty.' It must be said, however, that he also directed one very, very unfunny movie called 'Wild, Wild West.' But nobody's perfect.

He also was the brains behind a couple of brilliant, funny television shows that absolutely no one watched: 'Maximum Bob,' based on the Elmore Leonard novel of the same name, and the late, lamented live-action cartoon, 'The Tick.'

Given his predilection for Leonard's works Ñ 'Get Shorty' also was based on a Leonard book Ñ Sonnenfeld was absolutely the right choice to direct the film version of humor columnist Dave Barry's debut novel, 'Big Trouble.'

For his first wholly fictional work, Barry modeled his story on the work of his friend and Miami Herald colleague, Carl Hiaasen ('Skin Tight,' 'Striptease'), who himself borrows heavy style points from Leonard.

It's a novel filled with characters who stumble sideways into wacky situations, bad guys who are more quirky and stupid than menacing, and plenty of snarky sideswipes at the city of Miami. It's a very funny book, (even if it never quite reaches the level of Hiaasen or Leonard) and translates pretty well to the screen, with most of the laughs intact.

The convoluted story concerns Eliot Arnold (Tim Allen), a newspaper columnist-turned-adman and newly single dad. His son, Matt (Ben Foster), embarks on a mission to drench a girl from his school (Zooey Deschanel) with a squirt gun as part of a high school game called Killer.

Matt arrives at the girl's house, unfortunately, at the very same time as an out-of-town hit man (Dennis Farina) shows up to rub out her dad, businessman Arthur Herk (Stanley Tucci).

Meanwhile, a saintly homeless guy named Puggy (Jason Lee) has camped out in the Herks' tree house, and a pair of dim thugs named Snake and Eddie (Tom Sizemore, MTV 'Jackass' star Johnny Knoxville) rob a bar owned by a pair of Russians with a storage room full of military-grade weapons É well, there's a whole lot more, and the elaborate unfolding of the plot is half the fun.

The huge ensemble cast Ñ which also includes Rene Russo, Janeane Garofalo, Patrick Warburton, Heavy D and Omar Epps Ñ is terrific, and the script is well-paced and clever.

An interesting note: 'Big Trouble' originally was set to be released last September but was pulled from the release schedule after the terrorist attacks because of a major subplot involving a suitcase bomb on an airplane.

The film is arriving in theaters intact, but a scene where the bomb gets waved through security Ñ as well as several jokes about inept airport cops Ñ already seems dated. It may very well have been that easy to get lethal weapons through Miami airport checkpoints pre-Sept. 11, but it sure isn't happening that way now.