Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
I was thinking of doing a 20-year lookback, and came across two reviews of films that made weirdness their fundamental raison d’etre. The first has a title that’s stuck around as an indicator of multiplex transgression (but it has its cult), the second has been mostly forgotten, as far as I can tell. The people involved are truly rooted in 2001: Tom Green, Brendan Fraser, Chris Kattan, Bridget Fonda. This is how I encountered them in Film.com back then.
Freddy Got Fingered
Is Tom Green the Marcel Duchamp of the Britney Spears generation? Tempting to make such a comparison, especially with Freddy Got Fingered‘s Dadaesque sausage/keyboard machine, but problems arise: 1) there is no correlative for the Drew Barrymore thing with Duchamp, and 2) Duchamp was actually funny. Perhaps it is better to call Green a performance artist, and leave it at that. He creates situations, happenings, and then lets them play out in excruciating detail.
This works, sometimes, on Green’s TV show. There is something undeniably liberating about seeing a fearless man with a microphone going up against the square world (cf. David Letterman’s legendary trip with a fruit basket to General Electric headquarters.) It does not work in the more demanding structure of a movie. Freddy Got Fingered has a plot to attend to, and actual characters, but it is more interested in the grotesque stunts that Green pulls on his MTV series than in creating movie stuff. For the record, Green plays a schlub from Portland, Oregon, who dreams of becoming an animator. His parents (Rip Torn and Julie Hagerty) send him off to L.A. in a new Chrysler Le Baron; he’ll work at a factory making cheese sandwiches while he tries to get into showbiz. (The scene you’ve seen thirty times in the TV commercials with Green wearing a “cheese helmet”? It’s not in the movie, except for the end-credits outtakes. Some of the funnier bits in the ads end up here.)
Green comes back, romances an oral-sex-obsessed doctor (Marisa Coughlan) in a wheelchair, and accuses his father of sexually molesting Green’s sibling—this is where the title comes in. Around this skeleton is Green’s bread and butter. He pulls a baby out of a childbirth patient and tears the umbilical cord off with his teeth. He licks a friend’s compound fracture. He grabs the enormous members of a horse and an elephant (the elephant dong is fake, I hope to god).
What makes this kind of skit astonishing (but still, not exactly funny) on Green’s TV show is the verisimilitude of the acts. In a movie, we know it’s phony, or most of it is—so when the movie Green covers himself in a roadkill deer, it isn’t as big a transgression as playing with a real raccoon carcass on the show. One moment would not be out of place in the shocking surrealist classic Un Chien Andalou: cross-cutting between horses copulating in a field and Green deliriously smashing food into his face. What does that mean? I don’t know, but it troubles me deeply.
(By the way, the preview audience for Freddy Got Fingered was full of people with their kids. Do not bring children to this movie unless you want them to have nightmares for weeks.)
Throughout the movie there is the spectacle of Green forcing things, of desperately willing something to happen when it is all too plain that nothing is happening. His character gets a piece of advice from a cartoon mogul (Anthony Michael Hall), which is surely something that Green himself has heard from the suits in the boardrooms: Looking at Green’s drawings, Hall patiently tells him, “There has to be something that happens that’s actually funny.” A hopelessly 20th century idea, for Tom Green has made a success of himself by ignoring that very advice.
If you put a chimpanzee in a room with a camera and an editing suite for a hundred years, would he come up with Monkeybone? Maybe not, although it sometimes seems this scattered movie was put together in just such a fashion. Based on a graphic novel and directed by the talented Henry Selick (of Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach), Monkeybone skitters off in a dozen directions at once.
On the plot level, it’s about a cartoonist, Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser), whose comic character Monkeybone is about to make him a rich man. But Stu is a depressive art type; his black-and-white sketches look like storyboards for a Kafka biography. On the night he plans to propose marriage to girlfriend Julie (Bridget Fonda), a car accident puts him in a coma. Naturally, we journey with him to the strange half-world of his mind: Downtown, a loading zone between heaven and hell, where (oddly enough, for the purposes of the film’s entertainment value) not a great deal happens.
Monkeybone, Stu’s creation, is alive and well in Downtown, thanks to computer animation and the voice of John Turturro. While Stu goes through his surprisingly pedestrian adventures Downtown, things are not looking good in the waking world. His sister (Megan Mullally, doing a variation on her “Will and Grace” termagant) wants to pull the plug in his hospital room, but Julie remains steadfast. Eventually, after dickering with Death (Whoopi Goldberg) in Downtown, Monkeybone gets flipped back into the body of Stu, transforming Stu into pure swinging id.
This movie has a lot of gratifyingly wacky touches, in line with Selick’s identity as a junior version of Tim Burton. The creatures of Downtown are lovingly weird, and the god of sleep (Giancarlo Esposito), half man and half goat—I guess—is just the right blend of funny and creepy. Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe are hanging around. Brendan Fraser, a very game fellow, sings “Brick House” to a room of swells. Whoopi Goldberg’s head comes off.
But by the time Stu’s spirit is zapped into the body of a floppy corpse with a broken neck—played with all the rubbery agility Chris Kattan can muster—it’s overkill already. There are laughs here, but Selick doesn’t corral them, and the movie has no shape. You could argue that Tim Burton has made a career out of similar things, but at least there’s a mad engine driving Burton’s messes. Monkeybone looks like a very cheerful and imaginative accident.
May 28, 2021
Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.