The works of author Elmore Leonard are not known to make the transfer from the page to the screen very successfully. Sure, 1995's GET SHORTY was a big success, but HOMBRE (1967), THE 52 PICK-UP (1986), and CAT CHASER (1989) were all considered unqualified disasters (although HOMBRE is certainly underrated in retrospect). Unfortunately, 1969's THE BIG BOUNCE is also considered among those disasters, which is a totally undeserved fate for such an efficiently effective little film. In fact, I dare say I enjoyed THE BIG BOUNCE even more than GET SHORTY.
The film opened to scathing bad reviews upon its release in spring of 1969, and audiences stayed away in droves (the film was never even released on home video until 35 years after its theatrical release in 2004). I haven't read Leonard's original novel, so I have no idea how faithful the film is when compared to the source material. I can say, however, that director Alex March and screenwriter Robert Dozier do a fine job keeping the momentum going, as the film moves along at a pleasing pace. And while the picture may not exactly have Oscar-worthy cinematography, the film is certainly good to look at, especially in its original Panavision widescreen format.
The film's major ace-in-the-hole, however, is the always-terrific Ryan O'Neal in the lead. Although O'Neal was a major star in the seventies, starring in the smash hits LOVE STORY (1970), WHAT'S UP, DOC? (1972), and PAPER MOON (1973), he has never really seemed to receive his deserved props for being the truly topnotch actor that he is. Even in the absolute worst films (and he has made more than a few), I have yet to see him give a lackluster performance. And this film is no exception.
After five years of starring on the popular primetime soap opera "Peyton Place," O'Neal made his starring debut in this film, and it is clear he had already begun mastering a respectable craft. From beginning to end, he is completely believable as our hapless hero. You never doubt his genuineness. It is yet another performance that makes you set up and ask yourself, "Why didn't this man get any more respect back in the day?"
Of course, even if he never received much critical kudos, Ryan was certainly one of the top male pinups of his era. The reason is clear: in addition to being drop-dead-gorgeous, Ryan also was not the least bit shy about sharing his beautiful body with the rest of the free world. He always gave us exactly what we were wanting to see, and it all began here in THE BIG BOUNCE. Appearing in various stages of undress throughout the entire film, if watching Ryan in this film doesn't get you hotter than hell, then you better run out and get some Viagra.
As for the rest of the cast, Leigh Taylor-Young, who was married to Ryan at the time of the film's release, is amusing as the wild and crazy hellion. Although Taylor-Young is far from my favorite actress, she really gives the part her all and is an absolute hoot to watch. The chemistry between her and O'Neal is magnetic, and some of their scenes together are pretty steamy. Leigh also looks terrific here, and does a somewhat surprising amount of nudity (isn't it odd that films from the late-sixties and early-seventies often have more causal nudity than films today).
The camp honors for the film must go to future Oscar-winner Lee Grant, who probably likes to forget she appeared in this film. Grant turns in a hysterically unsubtle performance as the hot-to-trot single mom who lusts after Ryan throughout the picture (can't say I blame her). Grant literally trembles with unrestrained horniness anytime she is around O'Neal, and some of their scenes together are marvelously entertaining kitsch. She's basically all over the place at once, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't find her entertaining.
The young Lisa Eilbacher is surprisingly credible, and displays of refreshing minimum of kiddie star cuteness as the young daughter of Grant's character. In particular, Eilbacher flawlessly handles one very difficult scene with such accuracy and truth that she provides the film with its one true heart-wrenching moment. Not surprisingly, Eilbacher continued acting and raked up numerous credits throughout the seventies and eighties, although she had not been seen in anything new for nearly 20 years now. I'd certainly like to know what she's been up to.
The rest of the cast is filled out by a good assortment of character actors, a better lot than I would have expected, including James Daly and Robert Webber. The best of the group is easily Van Heflin, in a touchingly unsentimental performance as O'Neal's boss/father figure. It's very nice little portrait of tough love that feels refreshingly unforced, and it's a fitting bookend to the career of Heflin, who died a few short years later in 1971. All of the other minor roles are acceptably cast as well.
Although the film is definitely underrated, it still is not perfect. Although it's enjoyable while it's playing, the film never really adds up to much in the end. It is further marred by an abrupt ending that ties things up too quickly and an absolutely atrocious music score (seriously, it's one of the worst original film scores that I've ever heard). Still, I guarantee that THE BIG BOUNCE will give you a couple hours of grooving, sexy fun. And the young Ryan O'Neal is very much worth checking out, especially here at the peak of his physical beauty.
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