The extravagantly smutty black comedy Monkeybone opens nationwide today, but the studio (20th Century Fox) didn't let most critics anywhere near the picture until Wednesday night—which sends the not-so-subliminal message, "We're dumping this monkey turd." It's no wonder that many reviewers had their minds made up in advance. One blurbmeister—the same discerning intellect who'd opened his review of Speed 2 by exclaiming, "Sandra Bullock fans, you are in for a treat!"—was heard to say it was the worst movie he'd ever seen, while others have used phrases like "bafflingly incoherent."
I've watched this reception with a sinking heart. The screenwriter, Sam Hamm, was a neighbor and a pal when I lived in San Francisco a decade ago, and it's probably no coincidence that in Monkeybone the surgeon who might or might not "pull the plug" on the coma-bound protagonist is called "Dr. Edelstein." I haven't decided if I'm honored or mortified by my namesake's narrative function, but for a while it did seem grimly in keeping with my take on the movie. Although the script was explosively funny, a rough cut I watched on video in October (after I did a Q and A with Hamm at the Virginia Film Festival) convinced me that the director, Henry Selick, had botched the job beyond salvation. I still think Selick has an anti-talent for directing actors and no clue how to tell a story visually. But the Monkeybone that I saw on Wednesday—noodled with, trimmed, pepped up with a jolly funhouse score by Anne Dudley—left me agog and exhilarated. This might even be some kind of nutbrain classic.
The doctor is happy, which is why he's throwing out any claim to scientific (or critical) objectivity. Hamm deserves champions. His original script for Batman is a classic, notwithstanding the inane additions of others. (He should probably make up cards that read: "No, I did not write, 'Did you ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?' and I don't know what it means, either," or "Don't ask me why Alfred let Vicki Vale into the batcave. I'd fire his bony ass.") It was Hamm's rethinking of the superhero that gave Batman a new life. In his introduction to the 1991 graphic novel Blind Justice, he discusses the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents by a mugger, then wonders why—"since crime breeds criminals more often than crimefighters"—this particular tragedy ended up producing the world's most famous "gaudy-costumed vigilante." Hamm concludes:
What all this suggested to me was that Bruce had become Batman as a result of being spoiled. He had grown up with sufficient money and leisure to luxuriate in his own tragedy, to wallow in the false sense that it made him somehow unique. In other words, Bruce had never learned to cut his losses. For good or bad, he'd become addicted to his own pain—and he relied on the outward nobility of his mission to conceal the true perversity of his addiction. In this psychological scheme the Batman persona would function both as a symptom of, and justification for, his madness. To keep it alive, he'd have to relive the death of his parents again and again, killing them anew each night.
When you read the above, you know why the first Batman (in spite of its lapses) works, and why the sequels—in which Batman no longer functions as a dramatic character—don't. You also get a sense of Hamm's brilliance at finding a psychosexual core in what might seem like comic-book juvenilia and then spinning it into a sophisticated (and very grown-up) narrative.
That gift is on display in Monkeybone, which is a rollicking Freudian carnival—an epic dirty joke. The hero and butt is Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser), a nerdy, conflicted cartoonist who'd been unable to sleep for years on account of raging and uncontrolled nightmares. But the love of his life, a sleep researcher named Julie (Bridget Fonda), somehow got him to draw with his other hand, tap into a different region of his brain, and produce—Monkeybone, the cartoon embodiment of Stu's dark side, his id.
As the movie begins, the filthy Monkeybone has become a sensation, and the character (and what he represents) is threatening to overwhelm the delicate balance of Stu's psyche. On cue, a promotional Monkeybone doll inflates in his car, he crashes, and Stu winds up in a coma. We watch as he sinks (literally) out of the real world and then embarks on a long, long roller-coaster ride into a fetid amusement park called Down Town, where the animalistic denizens watch people's nightmares—including Stu's and Julie's—for entertainment. Worse, in Down Town, Monkeybone is flesh. He sticks to Stu, embarrasses him like a boner, taunts him: Stu has a monkey on his back for real.
The first half of Monkeybone has a strong emotional pull—it's The Odyssey reconceived as a psychosexual fantasia. (And it's about a thousand times more affecting than the Coens' take on Homer, OBrother, Where Art Thou?, in which the wife is a ninny who couldn't care less if her husband gets back.) The second half, in which Monkeybone manages to return to the land of the living—taking over Stu's body and leaving him trapped down below—is even wilder and more lunatic. Hypnos (Giancarlo Esposito), the satyr-god of nightmares, has a scheme to use Monkeybone to send all of mankind into a state of perpetual, dream-laden madness. The last part features Monkeybone dolls that spew poison out of their butts; Stu inhabiting the corpse of a broken-necked gymnast organ donor (Chris Kattan); and the arrival of Death (Whoopi Goldberg) in a Godzilla-sized robot—death-ex machina.
Is Monkeybone as discombobulated as it sounds? Maybe more so. But it's not incoherent: It hangs together—just. I miss some of the more extended scenes in Hamm's script, but there's something to be said for the ramshackle-wooden-roller-coaster pacing of this 87-minute cut. The whole thing has a dream (or nightmare) logic that whips you along, and the nuttier it gets the more hilarious it gets. When an exasperated Stu goes chasing after his alter ego and announces he'll be back when he finishes choking his monkey, it's as if Freud and Minsky have teamed up to do vaudeville in the afterlife. The climax—Kattan as Stu cartwheeling off a city bus, adjusting his broken neck, trying to keep his intestines from spilling out of a slit in his stomach—is the most riotously sustained piece of slapstick in a movie in years: organic comedy.
So what's the problem? Well, Monkeybone himself kinda sucks. When I read the script I pictured a 3-D, pop-out, comin'-at-ya' little phallic monkey with a Groucho or Michael Keaton-as-Beetlejuice delivery. But the visual inspiration here is an inexpressive sock puppet, and the voicing by John Turturro isn't terribly lewd or funny. (There's no boner in Monkey Bone.) Selick handles his live actors just as ineptly, so that some of Fraser's monkeyshines in the second half go on too long, and in many compositions the gorgeous Fonda (acting her heart out) looks stranded. The director really seems to have no idea how to stage and shoot a scene so that you understand what's in the characters' heads. That said, the thin line between artistry and ineptitude is one reason movies such as Carnival of Souls and Night of the Living Dead are horror masterpieces, and the flatness of Selick's framing adds to our sense of dislocation. Something that's a little off can be scary, or funny, or better yet, both at once.
There's certainly enough invention—enough amazing stuff coming at you—to keep you happier than at any dozen other movies. There's that giant roller coaster. Reprieved coma victims stick a card in a slot and get shot out of Down Town through the jaws of a giant Abraham Lincoln ("The Great Emancipator"). The black-and-white nightmares (designed by Selick and Bill Boes) are masterpieces of Expressionism. In one, the plug is pulled on Stu, and he literally deflates—but slowly and mournfully, so that you can almost see his soul leaving his body. Sure, I understand why people think Monkeybone is a mess. But a dud? A bore? Get outta town. Dr. Edelstein has come not to pull the plug but to yodel, "It's alive! Alive! Alive!!!!!!"