The year 2001 gave us a slew of hall of fame comedy stinkers.
While everyone tends to gang up on Tom Green’s widely despised (but not entirely laugh-free) “Freddy Got Fingered,” there are more than a few worthier contenders.
Some will recall the part-animated, part-live action “Osmosis Jones,” a mucus-heavy farce in which an animated Chris Rock, sporting body buns, has to fight the germs within the immune system of Bill Murray (who was shockingly not given anything funny to do or say).
There was also a teen sex comedy “Tomcats,” which scored the trifecta in that its un-sexy, un-funny and un-watchable.
Then there’s “Monkeybone,” a fascinating fiasco that, unlike the others mentioned so far, had a massive budget, hipster pedigree (it’s based on Kaja Blackley’s graphic novel “Dark Town”), a reliable cast, and a bevy of CGI, practical, stop motion and animatronic effects. Also, it’s from the director of “The Nightmare Before Christmas” (no, not Tim Burton, but Henry Selick, who also helmed “James and the Giant Peach”).
It begins with the shot of a stuffed monkey, randomly being tossed in the air, a perfect metaphor for such an aimless enterprise.
Then we get a bad cartoon opener, a huge warning sign- the crudely animated short should play like satire but instead is a quality indicator for the rest of the film. We then meet Stu Wiley (Brendan Fraser), a cartoonist whose Monkeybone comic book is becoming the crass, poorly animated TV series we glimpsed earlier.
Not long after the unveiling of his televised pilot, at a screening attended by his loyal girlfriend (Bridget Fonda) and obnoxious agent (Dave Foley with a disturbing blonde hairdo), Stu winds up in a coma. While his loved ones stand watch over him in a hospital bed, Stu’s mind is immersed in “Down Town,” the world within his mind and the home of Monkeybone, who is now alive and pestering Stu relentlessly.
While stuck in Down Town, Stu is aware of his real-life state of being in a coma and must make a deal with Death herself (Whoopi Goldberg) in order to escape.
“Monkeybone” wants to be “Beetlejuice” in the worst way but, instead, settles for a less kinky “Cool World.” I’m not defending Ralph Bakshi’s “Cool World” as a lost masterpiece but really, is there anything less interesting than “Cool World” minus the up-front sexuality?
Imagine a neutered version of that movie, with the worst bits of “The Pest” and “Drop Dead Fred” thrown in and you get “Monkeybone.”
The only consistent quality here is that it just keeps getting worse and worse. The film is long past salvageable when we get to the Chris Kattan cameo, in which the sensationally talented “Saturday Night Live” actor (whose film career never got past “A Night at the Roxbury,” “Corky Romano” and this movie) steps in and hijacks the third act.
He’s welcome to it, as this portion features Kattan’s reanimated corpse being on the run and chased by a gang of doctors (one of which is played by Bob Odenkirk); it’s incredibly dumb but a major improvement over everything else,
Fraser is all wrong as a comic book artist (even in “Cool World,” Gabriel Byrne was sort-of well-cast as a Frank Miller-type). Watching the actor in this is a reminder that Fraser was all too often cast in hit movies where he played a total doofus (“Encino Man,” “George of the Jungle” and “The Mummy” films). It’s a shame, since his total lack of inhibition and commitment to a physically demanding performance is underappreciated in all of those cases.
John Turturro as the voice of Monkeybone is as unfunny as Danny DeVito was playing Detective Whiskers in “Last Action Hero.”
Did checking out of “Army of Darkness” too early make Fonda willing to embrace a potential cult film? If so, she needn’t have bothered, as she’s miscast here. I never rooted for anyone in the film – well, not the characters, though I certainly felt for the careers of the actors.
Selick would redeem himself eight years later with the wonderful “Coraline.” On the other hand, the screenplay is from Sam Hamm, best known for being one of the two screenwriters on Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989). His decision to turn Blackley’s “Dark Town” into “Down Town” is just the first of many botches.
Hamm has given an interview on the “Batman” making of documentary where he nervously explains he didn’t come up with the film’s two most controversial story turns (the reveal of who killed Bruce Wayne’s parents and how Vicki Vale discovers Batman’s identity). I wonder, if given the opportunity, if he’d go into the multitude of reasons why this movie doesn’t work.
The attempt at surrealism results in a mishmash of contrasting styles. Selick uses animatronics, giant masks, elaborate make-up, optical and CGI effects, stop-motion animation and the kind of appliances you’d find at a Halloween store, all to create Down Town and its denizens.
The result is the screen overflowing with colors and shapes but it’s a conceptual mess.
FAST FACT: “Monkeybone” earned $5.4 million at the U.S. box office, a fraction of its reported $75 million budget.
There are too many irredeemable moments to cite but here’s one that I’ve never forgotten: when Goldberg shows up as Death, her head randomly explodes and Monkeybone catches her eyeball in his mouth. I guess it’s supposed to be homage to “The Evil Dead,” though I’m not sure.
There’s also the scene where Rose McGowan’s quasi-Jellicle cat murders a prison guard in order for Stu to escape. We get a shot of McGowan with blood on her face, yelling “Run!” There’s also Fraser’s singing “Brick House” to Fonda onstage, unfunny jokes about Stephen King and “South Park” and many more moments to pinpoint for being so uniquely awful.
Maybe worse than any of the garish fantasy scenes are just the portions with Fraser in a coma, while Fonda and Megan Mullaly try to spruce the film up with farce. These scenes are deadly and, because they’re devoid of spectacle and play like a sitcom, are even harder to take than all the garish Down Town nonsense.
The physical humor of the third act is more of Fraser’s wheelhouse, but his material is dreadful. We’re supposed to find it funny that this dead bozo is possessed by his cartoon monkey, who forces himself on Fonda? I could pretend to be politically correct about this and declare this “problematic” but really, everyone who sat through this in 2001 knew this was offensive and rotten back then, too.
Is this intended as a parody of a “Ren and Stimpy”- style cartoon and the cartoonists who sell out?
The initial premise, that the Monkeybone character not only represents Stu’s libido but is literally his erection as a living, breathing, talking horny monkey, isn’t the worst concept in cinema.
If this had the guts to be about genitalia that comes to life and communicate with its owner, at least you’d have a footnote like “Chatterbox!” (1977), about a talking vagina, or “Me and Him” (1989), about a talking penis.
Yes, these are real movies.
Instead, because this is a lavish goof in search of mainstream success, “Monkeybone” has all the boldness of a phallic cartoon scrawled inside a men’s room stall.
Overall, this is punishingly bad and childishly stupid, as well as all the proof you need that movies that set out to be an “instant cult classic” never turn out that way.
Twenty years later, the expected “Monkeybone” following still hasn’t shown its face, to which I’m grateful. Like the “Monkeybone” emblazoned hat with a tassel I was given after a screening, it has long been laughed off and discarded.