Tag Archives: D+

MONKEYBONE

There doesn’t seem to have been a good movie starring a simian since the original “King Kong” back in 1933, and “Monkeybone” will certainly leave the record unblemished. A “Beetlejuice” clone with more grotesquerie but far less mirth, the frantically slapstick farce from Henry Selick (director of the marvelous “Nightmare Before Christmas”) is so strenuous you can almost see the sweat roll off the screen. Unfortunately, it’s more irritating than funny.

The picture’s based on a graphic novel (the euphemism for an expensive comic book) called “Dark Town” by Kaja Blackley, and centers on a socially inept cartoonist named Stu Miley who’s in the first flush of major success deriving from his creation of an animated simian called Monkeybone (voiced by John Turturro) who, we can tell from an introductory clip, engages in all sorts of ribald acts to embarrass the humans around him. Stu, a rather retiring fellow, is also finally ready to propose to his long-time girlfriend Julie (Bridget Fonda), a research chemist. But before he can do so, he’s clobbered in an accident and winds up in a coma; while his body’s kept alive in the hospital, his spirit goes to a sort of halfway house between Life and Death called Downtown, the realm of dreams and nightmares overseen by the satyr-like ruler Hypnos (Giancarlo Esposito), where Monkeybone also resides. Stu tries to escape this limbo by sneaking into the kingdom of Death (Whoopi Goldberg) and stealing an “Exit” card back to the world of the living, but Monkeybone, in a plot hatched with Hypnos, instead uses the card to take over Stu’s body–their plan is to release a gas invented by Julie to enhance nightmares and thereby bring joy to the denizens of Downtown. To prevent the now-awakened but monkey-possessed Stu from completing this scheme, the real Stu persuades Death to give him a loner body in which he can try to foil the plot (an ill-timed twist, since it’s distinctly reminiscent of the recent “Down to Earth”); it turns out to be the rotting corpse of a dead gymnast (rubber-limbed Chris Kattan) which persistently sheds organs while being pursued by a bevy of doctors trying to harvest them as he frantically tries to stop Monkeybone. The big final confrontation is between Kattan-Stu and Fraser-Monkeybone-as-Stu, with the fate of the world and Julie literally hanging in the balance–atop a hot air balloon, no less.

This fractured, feverish plot is a wacky Freudian fable in which Monkeybone obviously represents the id of the repressed Stu, the seat of all those animalistic drives which societal demands have forced the poor guy to suppress. (Writer Sam Hamm italicizes this when he has Stu’s spirit pick up his “Psychological Baggage” on the way to Downtown.) So the joke is that when the racy simian takes over his creator’s body and acts like the lascivious, freewheeling character he is, it’s as though all the cartoonist’s inhibitions had suddenly been jettisoned and he can go along with all of his most primal urges. This premise could conceivably have been the basis for a hilarious picture–especially starring Fraser, who’d seem to be the perfect choice to play a Monkey-Man, having previously done nicely as a guy raised by apes in “George of the Jungle”–but it ends up seeming rather limp and lame despite all the slapstick, simply because the writing is so pallid and formulaic. Fraser does all the pratfalls, contortions and wide-eyed reactions demanded of him, but he never crosses the line from exertion to charm; he’s working much too hard to very little effect. Fonda, meanwhile, is utterly wasted as Stu’s fiancĂ©; the role could just as well have been played by a mannequin. And Kattan’s shtick, which has a certain gruesome joviality at first, is dragged out so long that by the end it merely seems unsavory–like one of those SNL skits in which Kattan so often appears that overstays its welcome by a considerable margin. Esposito is simply dull as Hypnos (having his head stuck onto a goat’s body can hardly have energized his thespic motivation), but even at that he’s more interesting that Goldberg, who smirks and walks through the role of Death as though she were still in the center of the Hollywood Squares. (She brings nothing like the wry sense of bewilderment with which William Sadler endowed the Grim Reaper in “Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.”) Dave Foley, as Stu’s boss, is stuck with a part that’s a series of embarrassments, culminating in a scene that requires him to run around naked with green paint on his face. And, sad to say, the animated Monkeybone himself is an annoying little twit who wouldn’t survive half a season even on Comedy Central. (He’d probably be replaced by yet another airing of SNL reruns.)

The makers of “Monkeybone” have gone all out with the special effects, of course, aiming to endow Downtown and Underworld with some of the same dark glamor that Halloween Town possessed in the far superior “Nightmare Before Christmas.” But the result lacks the enchantingly visionary quality of the earlier film (perhaps because it lacks Tim Burton’s uniquely personal perspective); the picture looks seedy and second-rate by comparison, at worst resembling a more perverse recreation of the elaborate sets and costumes that used to be featured on old Krofft Brothers TV series like “H.R. Pufnstuf.” That’s hardly a compliment.

The over-the-top combination of slapstick, grossness and excessive SFX that permeates “Monkeybone” may appeal to the more primitive instincts in some members of its audience, but most viewers–unlike its poor, possessed protagonist–will retain enough of their rational faculties to dismiss the picture as the rather sloppy, inane farce that it is.

BAMBOOZLED

If Mel Brooks had tacked an hourlong condemnation of the Holocaust onto “The Producers” (1968), complete with shots of concentration camps and mass graves, the result might have resembled Spike Lee’s deeply impassioned but extremely disappointing new film. The first half of “Bamboozled” is a dark satire about the propensity of the television industry either to ignore African-American realities or to depict them stupidly; it’s rather ragged and too often hamfisted, but also sporadically penetrating, funny and provocative. Then, however, the picture goes into polemical mode, abandoning any satirical perspective and adopting in its place a clumsily melodramatic tone; by the denouement there’s more death and gunplay than in a Tarantino flick, and the air has become thick with portentious and pretentious didacticism. The scalpel that Lee employs at the beginning, though not ideally sharp, has been transformed into a bludgeon by the close.

“Bamboozled” focuses on Pierre Delacroix (Damon Wayans), an effete, Harvard-educated fellow who’s the sole black executive at a TV network; badgered by his fast-talking, obtuse boss (Michael Rapaport) to come up with some new and exciting programming, Pierre, enraged at the suggestion that he might be out of touch with his race, sarcastically pitches the notion of a minstrel show starring two street entertainers whom he’s renamed Mantan (Savion Glover) and Sleep ‘n Eat (Tommy Davidson). He expects that the offensiveness of the concept will shame his superiors, but much to his chagrin not only do they embrace the idea, but the show turns out to be an astronomical hit, a smash which has people of all races eagerly adopting black-face makeup in the latest pop-culture fad.

So far, so good–the plot hinges on the notion of unexpected consequences in producing a piece of entertainment, much as “The Producers” did. But even in this segment of the picture, there are major problems. Wayans, using an exaggeratedly adenoidal voice and extravagant hand gestures, is more a sketch caricature than a credible human being as Delacroix, and Rapaport is aggressively unamusing as his boss. There are also difficulties with the figure of Pierre’s lovestruck assistant, played by Jada Pinkett Smith; she alternately supports Delacroix’s scheme and then bitterly opposes it, so that we’re never certain where the character is supposed to stand. Nor are the excerpts we’re shown from the minstrel show funny enough to convince us that the program could ever become the runaway success it’s claimed to be; the same problem afflicted the bits of “Springtime for Hitler” we were shown in “The Producers,” but the effect here is even worse. On the other hand, Davidson (fresh from rehab, one suspects) is energetic, and Glover (the sensation of Broadway’s “Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk”) dances wonderfully and manages to bring a hint of pathos to his character.

Everything collapses, however, after protests occur against the program (Al Sharpton and Johnnie Cochran offer cameos that are singularly unimpressive), and Pinkett’s rapper brother, played by Mos Def, plots some very public revenge against its creators. The mood turns sour and unbearably preachy, and the characters are made to act in ways that exhibit no consistency or sense. A final montage showing degrading portrayals of African-Americans in American media over the decades is well-done, but renders the piece even more obvious and hectoring.

The fault lies with Lee, of course: he remains an exceptionally gifted filmmaker, but his writing and helming here demonstrate no penchant for satire; and his decision to use digital cameras leaves the picture with a bleached, washed-out look that is extraordinarily unattractive from any artistic perspective (too many sequences, moreover, are badly oversaturated with light). “Bamboozled” surely impresses a viewer with Lee’s sense of outrage and commitment, but one’s admiration for his goals can’t compensate for a final product that’s shapeless, logy and, by the close, crushingly unsubtle. His ability is on far better display in “The Original Kings of Comedy,” which proves not only far funnier but somehow more authentic in its presentation of the African-American experience. There’s a brief scene in “Bamboozled” showing Delacroix’s father, an old-fashioned comic, doing a standup routine; it has the same verve and style that the four stars exhibit in “Kings,” and, truth to tell, it’s the best part of the new picture. Otherwise Lee’s intensity overwhelms his talent; no amount of clever camera tricks and jagged editing can conceal the flimsiness of concept and tonal incongruity that mark “Bamboozled.”