Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Monkeybone

Boy, I thought I wanted to strangle John Turturro in Miller's Crossing. I had no idea how obnoxious he could be as an animated monkey. At least the Coen Brothers had the decency to let Gabriel Byrne blow his brains out.

Monkeybone (2001) is from director Henry Selick, who has directed a number of wonderful stop-motion animated movies, including The Nightmare Before Christmas, James and the Giant Peach, and Coraline. These movies were bizarre and at times dark, but they were also sweet, charming, funny, and imaginative. Monkeybone mixes live-action and stop-motion animation, but unfortunately, it's mostly just weird, playing like a bad version of Beetlejuice that lacks the wit and wonder Tim Burton brought to his picture.

The movie centers on a cartoonist, Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser), who is about to propose to his girlfriend Julie (Bridget Fonda) and hit it big with his popular creation Monkeybone (voice by John Turturro). Alas, an accident knocks Stu into a coma where he enters Down Town, a bizarre limbo filled weird fantastical creatures including Monkeybone. Long story short, Monkeybone winds up occupying Stu's body in the real world, allowing him to wreak havoc, while Stu is sent into the body of a gymnast-turned-organ-donor (Chris Kattan) to stop his creation.

Monkeybone is a movie I want to like more than I do because it's so darkly offbeat and weird. It's similar to Beetlejuice in that Down Town is filled with bizarre creatures and nightmarish imagery (a dog exposed to Nightmare Juice dreams he's strapped to a gurney about to be castrated by feline surgeons), and some characters look like they'd belong in a Ray Harryhausen stop-motion epic like Sinbad or Jason and the Argonauts. Whoopi Goldberg turns up as Death, an eye-patch-wearing boss with a shelf full of spare heads in case hers explodes. Down Town resembles a seedy carnival, and those souls who are allowed to return to their bodies are sent flying into the stratosphere by a high striker.

Selick is also not afraid to push the bounds of taste. At the climax, when Stu as the gymnast is chasing Monkeybone in Stu's body while dangling from a balloon, his organs keep falling out of his abdomen and landing in inopportune places, such as a grill or the mouth of a hungry dog. It's disgusting, but the audacity is kind of admirable, even if much of the scenes emphasizing the body's poor condition (a snapped neck held up by a ruler and duct tape) made me wince.

The problem with Monkeybone is it's never really funny; it's mostly weird and dark. There were several instances when I can tell I was supposed to laugh, but it just wasn't happening. Selick seems to be under the impression that being bizarre is funny enough; he introduces a character or setting that's unusual but doesn't give them anything interesting to do. For example, Stu and Monkeybone disguise themselves as a cloaked grim reaper, one of dozens under the employ of Death, and the pair end up in line, waiting for their assignment. Again like, Beetlejuice, we're dealing with the afterlife bureaucracy, and this is a neat set up, but the movie never escalates the situation, content to show Stu and Monkeybone just trying not to get caught.

But the main problem with Monkeybone is Monkeybone himself; he's just annoying, a loud, chattering runt who causes trouble without any traits to make him palatable. Last Beetlejuice reference I promise, but Michael Keaton as the Ghost with the Most had several dimensions. He could be creepy, lecherous, sarcastic, flamboyant, jovial, laid-back, and the kind of trouble he caused involved turning into a giant snake demon. He was smart, a schemer with a plan and goal. Plus his screen time was limited, so he wasn't tiresome. Monkeybone, a representation of Stu's id, is around too long, never shuts up and has no more motivation than to be a nuisance.

Fraser is normally a likable presence in this type of goofy movie, but he doesn't get a whole to do as normal Stu and his Monkeybone-Stu is just irritating. Plus, his character never recovers from the first scene when we learn that as a kid, he was sexually aroused by his teacher's arm flab (his first erection is represented by Monkeybone in one of his cartoons). That's the kind of detail I can tell is supposed to be funny, but I'm not laughing; I'm kind of creeped out. Meanwhile, Fonds is given little to do other than look worried.

Oddly enough, the best actor in the movie is Kattan. I've never been a fan of Kattan's, and his cinematic output includes such execrable movies as A Night at the Roxbury and Corky Romano, but as a corpse, occupied by Fraser's character, he is surprisingly good, and the scene where he tries to convince Julie who he really is kind of sweet and convincing. No one else makes much of an impression except Rose McGowan as a Down Town cat lady (as in a humanoid cat) and Dave Foley as Stu's manager, who freaks out, strips naked, and runs through a crowd.

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