The trailer for Monkeybone does the film a grave disservice by making it look like an utterly tasteless, one-joke, leering, “hubba-hubba” comedy of the most vulgar kind. (The trailer also suggests much post-production tampering, since one pivotal scene in the film is entirely different from what we see in the trailer.) And, yes, Monkeybone is cheerfully — even defiantly — tasteless, and it hardly comes up short in the vulgarity department, but it boasts a lot more than one joke and isn’t limited to the locker-room humor evidenced by the trailer. The premise of the film is also much more complex than might be imagined. Neurotic cartoonist Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser in an intriguing, almost dual role) is on the verge of both vast commercial success and proposing to the woman who changed his life (Bridget Fonda) when an accident plunges him into a coma — a situation that is made just that much worse by virtue of the fact that his horrific sister (Megan Mullally) is ready to pull the plug on his life support at the earliest possible moment. In this state, Stu is transported to the netherworld of Downtown, a nightmarish place where persons in comas are sent while their ultimate fate is decided — and where nightmares are bred. While Downtown, Stu runs afoul of his own comic creation, the rude and libidinous Monkeybone (voiced by John Turturro). As time is running out for Stu, he takes the advice of Hypnos (Giancarlo Esposito) and steals an exit permit from Death (Whoopi Goldberg). Unfortunately, Monkeybone has a plan of his own. Cold-cocking Stu with a (what else?) monkey wrench, he sends himself to the land of the living and takes over Stu’s body … and his life and his girlfriend. This, however, is the tip of the iceberg in terms of the plot and its machinations and the motives behind it all. That’s not to mention the levels of sheer strangeness the film finally scales, especially when Stu is sent back to earth in someone else’s body to try to right things (something granted him mostly because Death is a fan of his cartoons!). The idea of Stu — now played by Chris Kattan (Saturday Night Live) and billed as “Organ Donor Stu” — revived as a decomposing broken-necked gymnast in the midst of having his donated organs being removed by decidedly overzealous surgeons is probably the strangest thing to come down the pike in mainstream film in a long, long time. The idea itself is bizarre enough, but the presentation pushes the envelope of taste to the bursting point — and maybe a little beyond — as Organ Donor Stu’s vital parts tend to fall out of his duct-taped abdomen at various moments, occasionally serving as convenient missiles in his battle with the Monkeybone possessed Stu! The problem with this is the same as the problem with much of the film: It’s creative, it’s mouth-agape weird, but it’s something that induces amazement rather than laughs. This seems less a weakness of Sam Hamm’s script than it is of Henry Selick’s direction. Hamm’s script (adapted from a graphic novel) is surprisingly multileveled (it even borrows the product-tampering concept from his own Batman screenplay and cleverly reworks it). The direction is on one level only. Monkeybone pretty authoritatively answers the question of just who the true auteur of the Selick-directed Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is — and it’s not the titular director. All the mechanics for Burtonesque fantasy are in place here, but without Burton guiding them, it never really works. Selick is too content to let the production design (and it is gorgeous) do all the work without getting the good out of it. The results are a movie that feels more art-directed than directed. The question then is whether or not the script, the production design, the effects, Anne Dudley’s ersatz Danny Elfman score, and the invariably good performances are enough to make Monkeybone worth a visit. The answer is a reserved “yes,” simply because the movie has enough freshness, drive and creativity to keep it constantly entertaining, even while you realize that it keeps missing the mark.
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