A self-adrenalizing, self-destructing pop-culture whirligig, Henry Selick’s Monkeybone is no more centered or reasoned in its abuse of pulp than the titular cartoon character is in its reliance on puns and toilet humor. Based on a graphic novel (Kaja Blackley’s Dark Town), the movie isn’t satire or comedy, precisely; rather, it’s a cluttered, old-fashioned bad-trip movie—arbitrary “surrealism,” costume-ball getups, melting rooms, giant caricatured puppetheads straight out of Lady in the Dark. The difference is that cartoonist-hero Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser) isn’t flying on mellow-yellow but is in fact comatose, though whether the otherworld is an objective purgatory or a creation of his subconscious remains unclear. It hardly matters either way—Stu isn’t stuck there, away from his loving sleep-doctor girlfriend (Bridget Fonda), for very long before he’s dying of boredom, and we share his pain.
No substantial improvement on Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World, Monkeybone struggles toward a lunatic fringe, but Selick only seems comfortable working with miniatures (as he did on The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach). Though puppetooning equals sophomoric yocks in Disney’s America, Selick has no discernible sense of comedy. Stu’s out-of-control creation, a hyperactive phallic-substituting monkey voiced by John Turturro, is only mildly amusing once its manifested self inhabits Stu’s wakened body, giving Fraser a chance to court Fonda in Animal Planet thrusts and sell out the hit cartoon for amoral merchandising bucks.
Once Whoopi Goldberg shows up in an eye patch as Death, you realize it’s a free-fly zone. (After Bedazzled, Fraser seems stuck acting out his id beyond the Veil, a true Dante for the new century.) Trying to pass visual noise and costume design off as invention, Selick wastes most of his fun-house resources (a bewhiskered Rose McGowan is used for her boobs, and even then barely), with the late-hour exception of Chris Kattan as a very dead gymnast whose body Stu borrows, even as excited doctors are removing donated organs. Possibly the most gifted physical comic at work in America, Kattan claims the final, neck-broken, duct-taped triumph for himself, and he’s not even made of clay.
Just as sloppy about its appropriation of popular clichés—Elvis’s 40-year-old iconhood and the ’80s retro pillage of same—3000 Miles to Graceland starts with a prosaically conceived casino heist and then spirals out from there as a battle between a good-bad Elvis-impersonating hood (Kurt Russell) and a bad-bad Elvis-impersonating hood (Kevin Costner), which already sounds far funnier than it is. Goldbricking single mom Courteney Cox and her preposterously savvy 10-year-old son get mixed in as a rogue factor, but mostly it’s vintage Cadillacs on desert highways, smokin’ while yer drivin’ with a gun in yer lap.
Nobody told director/cowriter/music-video-hack Demian Lichtenstein that this bone-weary nostalgia had passed comfortably through the cultural colon by 1988. (Today, Elvis doesn’t represent American absurdity or American sociopathy much more than Neil Sedaka does—and a good deal less than, say, Michael Jackson.) Hardly Tarantino, Lichtenstein jacks off on Vegas neon and slo-mo gunplay, but the only provocative factor in sight is Costner. Any relief from the star’s usual self-worshiping grandiosity is welcome, and here the friendly psycho from A Perfect World drops the Mister Rogers act and stays scary. What’s interesting is that Costner doesn’t resemble a quaintly monstrous movie-villain badass so much as your own balding, whiskey-soaked, half-baked badass uncle, working on his fourth ex-wife and harboring the dress-to-impress ideas of a Sha Na Na roadie. Costner’s not a mannered showboat, and what we get isn’t a riff—it’s a semi-oblivious glimpse of bitter outlaw banality.
Regarding pulp in reductively pulpy ways is the easy road—even Mark Steensland and Andy Massagi’s The Gospel According to Philip K. Dick examines its legendary subject merely in terms of his visionary experiences, setting him up as a subject for a future X-Files episode. The straight talking-heads doc (cohorts, writer friends, gnostic scholars, fans) dallies too briefly with Dick’s writing, and too expansively with speculations about what Dick may or may not have experienced in February and March of 1974: a mystical epiphany that could just have been fallout from a pharmaceutical cocktail. Dick is present in audio interviews taped by Rolling Stone writer Paul Williams; the directors have decided to crudely animate a cartoon Dick to illustrate his pronouncements—buttressed by endlessly repeated cartoon hands typing on a cartoon typewriter. Modest and spare as it is, the doc serves as an effective induction into the Dick mind-set, which is left more or less off-camera. Writers are only interesting for what they’ve written, and for that you’ll have to go read.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 27, 2001