Saturday, August 10, 2013

Neglected Gem #44: Monkeybone (2001)

The Freudian comic fantasy Monkeybone is so inventive and enjoyable that I’ve never understood why it was treated as an extravagant embarrassment on its 2001 release. It’s messy and inconsistent, and at times the plot gets so complicated that, clever as it is, it begins to seem a little like a tin can tied to the movie’s tail. But since most Hollywood comedies come up with barely half a dozen good jokes, a movie with as many fresh comic ideas as this one – most of them gloriously visual – seems less a liability than a gift horse. Sam Hamm (Batman) adapted the script from Kaja Blackley’s graphic novel Dark Town, and Henry Selick, who collaborated with Tim Burton on A Nightmare Before Christmas, directed. It’s about a cartoonist named Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser) whose agent (Dave Foley) has just landed him an animated series on Comedy Central. Stu, who’s decent and retiring – he has a peek-a-boo bang that hides his right eye, as if he weren’t sure he wanted to expose his whole face to prying eyes – isn’t interested in the fame or the franchising. But he figures that this new peak of success provides him with the perfect opportunity to propose to his girl friend, Julie (Bridget Fonda), the doctor whose sleep clinic rescued him from his lifelong nightmares and whose encouragement helped him to channel his demons into art. The strip – and now the projected series – revolves around Monkeybone (voiced by John Turturro), a monkey who is pure libido and embodies the randy, crass impulses that sweet Stu represses, popping up unbidden like a jack in the box with an erection. The day Stu signs for the TV show, he and Julie get into a car accident and Stu winds up in a coma. While his self-involved sister Kimmy (Megan Mullaly, who seems miscast) makes plans to cut his life support, deep inside his head Stu is stuck in Downtown, a crazy-carnival land ruled by Morphos (Giancarlo Esposito), the monarch of nightmares. His only means of escape is to steal an exit pass from Death (Whoopi Goldberg) that will boot him back to the waking world. He accomplishes the task but at the last minute his mischievous alter ego Monkeybone grabs it and, free at last of his controlling master, surfaces in the hospital in Stu’s body.

The set-up is great fun, and Fraser and Fonda are lovely together. But the movie really takes off in the land of Morphos, where a variety of monsters roam the neon bars and alleys like the interplanetary mélange hanging out with Harrison Ford in that bar in Star Wars. At one point Julie falls asleep in Stu’s hospital room and he infiltrates her nightmare (which is in black and white), where Kimmy pulls the plug, over her objections, and Stu’s body deflates like a balloon. Later there’s another, equally nifty black-and-white nightmare: Stu’s dog Buster dreams he’s strapped to an operating table while cat surgeons armed with sharp instruments hover dangerously close to his genitals. (The magical photography is by the amazing Andrew Dunn; among Selick’s other gifted visual collaborators are production designer Bill Boes, costume designer Beatrix Aruna Pasztor, special make-up effects supervisor Greg Cannom, and a whole team of special effects technicians, led by Chad Baalbergen.) There are almost too many treats to take in; it seems to me that kids old enough to laugh at the nightmare imagery – kids who love dark graphics – would have a field day with this movie.

Brendan Fraser, with his alter ego Monkeybone

Esposito’s face is pasted onto a rodent body; it’s funny the first time you see him, but it doesn’t do much for his performance. And Goldberg’s trademark superciliousness doesn’t do much for the movie in general. (You can predict exactly how she’s going to read every line.) But Fraser proves to be adept at playing Stu and Monkeybone against each other; he’s a graceful, bouncy physical clown. In the last half hour Stu persuades Death to let him return to life for an hour in the body of a gymnast who died in a freak accident and is in the process of having his organs removed for harvesting, and as the gymnast Chris Kattan walks away with what’s left of the picture. This man died of a broken neck, so he can’t keep his head up without taping a split to the back of it, and he moves at a bizarre angle. But he’s a champion athlete, so he’s light on his feet (plus he’s already lost some of his innards, which lightens him up even more), and he can really streak. Kattan must have whooped with joy when he read the script; this is one of the best roles anyone’s written for a physical comedian in the last couple of decades. Monkeybone is mischievous but ultimately very sweet-natured; at the time when it came out, I would have said it would please a lot of people. Pity it was wrongly pegged as a stink bomb.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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