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Lightweight ‘Big Bounce’ never takes off

A very laid-back Owen Wilson stars in this silly thriller. By John Hartl

Elmore Leonard’s books have been translated into several smart movies, among them “Get Shorty,” “Jackie Brown” and “Out of Sight.” They’ve also provided the basis for such clinkers as “Stick,” “Touch” and Ryan O’Neal’s disastrous 1969 version of “The Big Bounce.”

Actually, I don’t remember much about that “Big Bounce,” aside from a publicist’s desperate attempts to make it look special. Hiring a helicopter to fly over a drive-in theater, he dropped ping pong balls on the cars — timing the stunt to the moment when the trailer for “The Big Bounce” appeared on the screen. It’s doubtful that the box-office receipts covered the cost of the helicopter ride.

George Armitage’s pretty, wispy new remake of “The Big Bounce” may need that kind of stunt to lure moviegoers to see it. It’s so weightless that it seems to float away even as you’re watching it. Five minutes after you’ve left the theater, there’s nothing left but the sense of having experienced a slaphappy travelogue.

It’s like a surfer’s version of “The Maltese Falcon,” with Hawaii replacing San Francisco. Owen Wilson is a very laid-back Bogart and Sara Foster is the larcenous femme fatale whose mischief he can’t resist. Willie Nelson and Harry Dean Stanton turn up as domino players who thrive on Wild Turkey; they appear to have wandered over from the set of some other, slightly more interesting movie.

The plot is minimal, or at least screenwriter Sebastian Gutierrez treats it that way. Wilson’s character, a petty thief and burglar named Jack Ryan (no relation to the hero of Tom Clancy’s novels), offends a mean, wealthy sleaze, Ray Ritchie (Gary Sinise), who owns the most fabulous beach house on the North Shore of Oahu.

Ritchie tries to throw Ryan off the island, but Ryan charms his way into staying, teaming up with Ritchie’s mistress, Nancy (Foster), who knows where $200,000 of his mob money is stashed. Charlie Sheen is Ritchie’s flunky, Bebe Neuwirth is Ritchie’s boozy wife, and Morgan Freeman plays a judge/businessman who has little use for Ritchie.

The actors, who trade mild witticisms with an ease that suggests improvisation, are generally so relaxed they seem to be on vacation. Wilson appears to be having a particularly good time teasing Foster with a laundry list of romantic cliches, which he offers as a way of hinting that he’s both on to her and fascinated by her.

Armitage directed “Grosse Pointe Blank” and “Miami Blues,” and he clearly has an instinct for casting smart thrillers. He knows exactly what to do with Wilson, and he encourages Foster to bounce off his gift for play-acting. Their scenes together are so loose and funny they deserve a sequel — and preferably a better movie.

Even a silly thriller has to be grounded in something, and in the end “The Big Bounce” doesn’t quite cut it. It’s one of the shortest movies in wide release right now, but even at 85 minutes it wears out its welcome.