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Look out! Brendan Fraser lets loose in 'Monkeybone'

Friday, February 23, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

Screenwriting dos and dont's:


RATING: PG-13 for crude humor and some nudity.

STARRING: Brendan Fraser, Bridget Fonda.

DIRECTOR: Henry Selick.




Do be creative, especially when taking your protagonist into a fantasy world.

Don't allow the obnoxious comic sidekick to effectively become the lead character in the movie for any significant length of time.

"Monkeybone" begins promisingly because it succeeds on the first count and falls apart because it disobeys the second.

The movie is based on the graphic novel "Dark Town," by Kaja Blackley, which contributed the fantasy setting, known in the movie as Downtown. It's a carnival purgatory populated by people lying in comas in the real world, along with grotesque creatures who are part human, part animal and part circus freak. They get their kicks by watching the nightmares of people in the world of the living.

They especially love the bad dreams of cartoonist Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser), whose raging id takes on a life of its own, much to his humiliation. With the help of Julie (Bridget Fonda), a sleep doctor who has become his girlfriend, he has channeled his fears into a comic primate he calls Monkeybone -- who is solely the creation of the filmmakers, screenwriter Sam Hamm ("Batman") and director Henry Selick ("The Nightmare Before Christmas").

Just as it appears that Monkeybone is about to make him a success -- and just as he is about to propose to Julie -- he gets into an accident that renders him comatose. Next stop: Downtown, where a three-dimensional Monkeybone ("I'm a figment," it says) entertains at the local nightclub.

Before Stu knows it, his comatose body is taken over by Monkeybone, wakes up and begins acting, well, like a big ape. Julie doesn't know what to make of him or this sudden personality change from sweet neurotic to completely unrepressed maniac -- swinging from the bed frame, eating hunks of cake from his bare hands, obsessing on flatulent Monkeybone merchandising, acting as crude as the crass pop-culture capitalists hoping to profit from his success.

Brendan Fraser unchained -- that's not a pretty sight, folks. He's played cartoon heroes like George of the Jungle and Dudley Do-Right and characters who might as well have been, in movies ranging from "Encino Man" to "Airheads" to "Bedazzled." Yeah, I know, he was in "Gods and Monsters," but as a subtle representation of the Frankenstein monster.

In "Monkeybone" the man does seem to be able to switch personalities on a dime and give up his body for slapstick as if he were the fourth Stooge. But he's like a bizarre combination of Moe and Curly -- relentlessly goofy in a way that makes you wonder whether he's going to amuse you, punch you or simply embarrass himself. The movie offers him plenty of opportunity with its physical gags and juvenile gross-out humor.

As Stu's girlfriend, Fonda is surprisingly gentle and passive, at least until those moments when she must try to save what's left of him. The movie coaxes two reasonably funny performances from actors I normally prefer to avoid, Chris Kattan and Dave Foley. Speaking of going against type, Rose McGowan plays an entirely sympathetic character, a cat waitress in Downtown. But then Whoopi Goldberg plays Death pretty much as you might expect.

And that's the way Selick directs the movie -- as a production designer more than as someone interested in developing the characters. "Monkeybone" has the same kind of animated Tinkertoy construction as "Nightmare" and his other major feature, "James and the Giant Peach."

But that brings us to the book of directing dos and dont's.

Do have an interesting visual sense.

Don't assume that looks are enough.

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