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Brendan Fraser reprises what's becoming his signature Sweet Nerd role as Stu Miley, a socially-impaired cartoonist (he wears a patch on his vest that reads "S. Miley" smiley, get it?). Stu's latest creation is Monkeybone, an orange chimp who's brash, obnoxious and oversexed. In short, everything that Stu's not paging Dr. Freud. Stu's on track to be unexpectedly successful, rich and happy - the Monkeybone comic strip and cartoon are exploding in popularity, he's being offered millions in franchising fees to take his work national, and he's found love in the charming and lovely Julie (Bridget Fonda). But on the night Stu plans to propose to Bridget a car accident puts him in a coma - a netherworld, trapped between death and life.
Trapped literally, for Stu finds himself in a dark and shadowy place called Downtown, where people's nightmares spring to life and most of the hired help looks like they were designed by Salvador Dali on mescaline. This would seem to be a fertile field for exploration, and visually the film is inventive and clever (the Downtown movie house is the "Morpheum" and shows exclusively nightmares, a train station cart is labeled "psychological baggage"). But director Henry Selick appears to have learned little from his former collaborations with Tim Burton, who produced the Selick-directed James and the Giant Peach and The Nightmare Before Christmas. This effort shows little of the previous features' imagination, being content to create bizarre-looking sets and characters but then using them in a largely pedestrian fashion. The film looks magical but very rarely acts that way. The ever-mainstream Chris Columbus' (Home Alone, Bicentennial Man) serving as producer this time may explain some of the homogenization.
The story repeatedly lurches between Downtown and reality as Stu tries to make his way back to consciousness and his beloved Julie, who just so happens to be a doctor who specializes in sleep disorders and comas how convenient. To list the myriad plot twists would serve little purpose here, but suffice it to say that over the course of the picture Fraser is required to impersonate a monkey, Chris Kattan is required to impersonate Fraser, and Bridget Fonda is required to react as if everything she's seeing makes perfect sense. The audience is required to sit for 87 minutes and wait for something interesting to happen, which seldom does. In Downtown, there's a fetching cat-human hybrid (Rose McGowan) who befriends Stu and tries to help him. Back in the Real World, Stu's sister (Megan Mullally) is trying to get doctors to pull the plug on him. Both characters are introduced with some promise, but then little used - yet another symptom of a film that repeatedly bounces between surreal and sweet, lampooning merchandising in one scene then happily displaying product placements for Cadillac and Haagen-Dazs in the next.
The best example of the film's misfiring is its treatment of nightmares. Several times during the story a character has a disturbing dream. Alfred Hitchcock knew that an audience's imagination could always conjure up images much more horrible than anything he could show them, so he sketched out the parameters of horror and implied the rest. Here, literal depictions of several nightmares are shown, but with little effect, primarily because everyone has their own private demons and fears, and there's no guarantee that the ones that Selick and screenwriter Sam Hamm choose to show us will fit our phobias.
Brendan Fraser is a talented comic actor, and here he tries very hard. Too hard at times, for much of the film one suspects he's been breathing helium between takes. But Fraser's breathless efforts and some striking sets can't hide the fact that Monkeybone is a maddeningly bipolar film that never quite seems to be able to decide what tone to take.
- Bob Aulert