Photo by Jack GouldWhatever kind of things can be said about Monkeybone, an inventive but virtually incoherent fantasy set in a cartoon underworld, it can't be accused of a dearth of imagination. There are plenty of bad movies clogging the 'plexes that leave your brain cells screaming for scraps—the current Sweet November, for example—but Monkeybone isn't one of them: Even at its worst, it remains original and strikingly odd. As unholy a mess as the movie is in many ways, it's rarely an uninteresting one, thanks to prodigious art direction and a clever premise that manages to transcend some truly clunky filmmaking.
In this mixture of live action and stop-motion/CGI animation, Brendan Fraser plays Stu Miley, a morose cartoonist who once suffered from debilitating nightmares and deep depression. As part of his therapy, he switched his drawing hand, and out popped a creation called Monkeybone, a libidinous cartoon monkey that turned into a cash cow. Now Stu is sick of marketing tie-ins and merchandise, and the only thing that cheers him is his girlfriend, Julie, a sleep therapist played by Bridget Fonda. But on the night he plans to propose, an accident places him in a coma. He's whisked off to Downtown, the comic-strip netherworld of his imagination—a sort of carnival-midway purgatory where Monkeybone (voice of John Turturro) is not only real but anxious to escape.
In Downtown, Stu has to fight to suppress Monkeybone, who wants all the cash and chicks that go with his creator's fame; their uneasy partnership involves encounters in Stu's subconscious with a high-rolling satyr (Giancarlo Esposito in goat hooves) and a literal sex kitten (Rose McGowan) while trying to secure the exit pass that would let Stu awaken. That Monkeybone apparently first appeared during Stu's
hormonal adolescence—and that the cheeky monkey's moniker is also the nickname of Stu's penis—is part of a tantalizing psychosexual undercurrent in Sam Hamm's script (adapted from a graphic novel by Kaja Blackley). But Monkeybone appears to have been drastically recut, with gags that don't pay off and plot threads that turn into dotted lines. (We never learn why Stu's sister, played by Megan Mullally from TV's Will & Grace, is so callously eager to pull the plug on her brother.) On the evidence of what's here, the director, Henry Selick, who made The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach, is all thumbs when it comes to live action. The real-world scenes are clumsily shot, crucial exposition is muffled, and actors as effective as Mullally and Dave Foley struggle to find the right tone.
To compensate, though, there are freaky and unsettling visions here you've never seen in a movie before. In art director Bill Boes' imagining, the anarchic Downtown becomes a morbid funhouse that's equal parts Dali and Tex Avery, filled with hypno-wheel graphics and loony-tune expressionism. The further the movie goes into the characters' dream lives—including, in one memorable throwaway gag, a dog's—the more alien and baroque the imagery gets. And the bizarre slapstick finale, which involves organ harvesters and a mid-air duel in the real world with gardening equipment, has some of the am-I-really-seeing-this? amazement of Beetlejuice and Being John Malkovich.
But even when the gags and the stray flights of imagination connect—and there are several big laughs, especially when Chris Kattan arrives as a reanimated gymnast—the ramshackle filmmaking dampens what could have been a classic. Worst of all, the movie offers little sense of what Stu is like when split away from his alter ego; he seems just as mopey and dull with Monkeybone in his head as without. Instead of a unified vision, Monkeybone often seems like two films awkwardly cut together—one directed by Stu, the other by his wayward creation.
MONKEYBONE WAS DIRECTED BY HENRY SELICK; WRITTEN BY SAM HAMM; PRODUCED BY CHRIS COLUMBUS, MARK RADCLIFFE AND MICHAEL BARNATHAN; AND STARS BRENDAN FRASER, BRIDGET FONDA, PAUL REUBENS, ROSE MCGOWAN AND WHOOPI GOLDBERG. NOW PLAYING COUNTYWIDE.
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