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Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2001

Walking a fine line between silly and smart


Rating: * * *
Director: Henry Selick
Running time: 93 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

Every now and then, even the most formulaic, assembly-line manufacturing can go wrong: A rat can fall into the fried-chicken batter, a pair of panties can end up in a beer bottle and a director like Henry Selick can end up at the helm of a Hollywood flick.

News photo
Brendan Fraser in "Monkeybone"

Thus it is that the director of "The Nightmare Before Christmas" finds himself recast as Hollywood's Worst Nightmare, taking a bankable star (Brendan Fraser, "The Mummy"), a sizable special-effects budget and a comic-book tie-in, and delivering an unmarketable, bewildering oddity called "Monkeybone," more suitable to midnight-movie culties than the multiplex mainstream.

These days almost all the Hollywood studios have created separate entities to milk the indie market, and the execs see nothing wrong with weirdness, provided it's on the cheap. When tens of millions spiral into a black hole called "director's vision," though, the suits are not happy. 20th Century Fox was so displeased with "Monkeybone" that not even big-name producer Chris Columbus could rescue this one from the scrapheap. Selick's flick barely made a ripple in the States before disappearing, and a similar lack of studio support is noticeable here in Japan, where the film has been quietly slipped into a late-night slot at a tiny theater.

The first question that comes to mind is: "Is it really that bad?" After all, stinkers like "Swordfish" or "The Avengers" are not only released regularly by the studios, they even make money. Which raises a suspicion: "Could it be good?" -- a film too intelligent, too artistic, too adult or too subtle for Hollywood tastes?

Well, it's neither, and therein lies the problem with "Monkeybone," a film too juvenile for the art houses, and too dark and disturbing for the little ones. "Monkeybone" weds G-rated jokes to an R-rated concept: Its man-in-a-rubber-suit effects recall campy children's TV shows like "Dr. Who" or "H.R. Puffenstuff." At the same time, the film also wants to be a sharp satire of merchandising-oriented entertainment, while including a gut-busting amount of grotesque Gothic humor involving coma victims, organ donors and evil, castrating cats. Unlike the sly children's pics these days that aim to deliver a few laughs to the parents as well, "Monkeybone" won't sit comfortably with either audience.

In that sense, "Monkeybone" recalls another colossal -- albeit intriguing -- failure, Terry Gilliam's "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen." It's about as frustrating, sandwiching moments of insanely imaginative humor between long stretches where it just can't find the key. Selick embraces whimsy to the point of no return; a glance at the cast credits should give you an idea of what you're in for: Rat Guard, Bug Man, Centaur, Yeti, Lizzie Borden, Rasputin, Pretty Babe Hybrids, Assbackward and Stephen King.

All this weirdness hinges on a zany plot twist that has mild-mannered cartoonist Stu Miley (Fraser) lapse into a coma after a freak car accident. While on life-support, Stu dreams of a place called Downtown, a surreal realm of sleep that seems like it was designed by Salvador Dali and peopled by Ed Wood. There, Stu is taunted by his own comic creation, Monkeybone (voiced by John Turturro), a libidinous (and highly annoying) animated chimp who gives new meaning to the phrase "wanting to choke the monkey."

Meanwhile, back in the real world, Stu's nasty sister Kimmy wants to pull the plug on him, while his girlfriend Julie (Bridget Fonda), a sleep-disorder researcher, tries to wake Stu by feeding him a serum that's basically nightmare juice. As Stu's coma-dreams get ever more bizarre -- at one point he turns into a wriggling larva on a vivisection table -- he seems on the verge of being granted an exit visa by Death (Whoopi Goldberg), only to have Monkeybone take it instead.

So the chimp ends up in Stu's revived body and engages in a manic spree, swinging from the rafters in the bedroom and endorsing about a zillion Monkeybone products, selling Stu's creative integrity to the highest bidder, Burger God. Stu's soul, with permission from Death, temporarily "borrows" another body (that of a dead, neck-broken gymnast in the midst of having his organs donated) and uses this reanimated corpse to propose to Julie and confront the Monkey-Stu.

This is about as stupefyingly silly as it sounds, and there are moments -- many of them -- when you won't know whether to laugh or groan. But just when you're ready to give up on it -- usually, when the monkey's getting some screen time -- along will come something so off-the-wall that it can walk the razor's edge of ridicule and survive. Believe me, if for nothing else, it's worth a look just to see Brendan Fraser doing a simian, disco love serenade of "(She's a) Brick House." Yow.

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