Thursday, March 14, 2013

"A" is for The Ape

 Back in 2005, James Franco was best known (to me) as the guy who played mopey, insular, navel-gazing male leads, exemplified by Harry Osborne, the only more tortured comic book character in the Spider-Man films than Peter Parker. He was the title character in Sonny and also James Dean in a movie of the same name and would continue along this path throughout most of the early to mid-2000s in movies like Annapolis and Tristan + Isolde before people (read: me) learned he was really more of a weird spaz who enjoyed arty movies that confounded mainstream audiences.

  I mean that in a good way, but since I was late to the Freaks and Geeks party, I didn't know that James Franco was funny or had an off-kilter sense of humor until after Pineapple Express. In fact, I may be one of the three people on Earth who didn't hate him as co-host of the Academy Awards because I had seen the SNL Franco hosted and that's pretty much exactly how I thought he would approach the Oscars.

 I can only imagine what people thought of The Ape in 2005 (provided anybody saw it then), Franco's adaptation of a play he wrote with Merriweather Williams and performed in California. It has the same kind of schlocky premise that would make Happy Madison a small fortune (in fact, The Zookeeper is probably the Sandler-fied version of this movie) but is tonally in a completely different zone. You know, as movies about talking gorillas go.

 Franco plays Harry, a struggling writer who abandons his family and moves to the big city (Hoboken, if I'm reading the signs correctly) to live alone in an apartment and finish his masterpiece. That is, of course, until he discovers that included with the apartment is a gorilla (Brian Lally) who talks and wears Hawaiian shirts, khakis, and sometimes beanie caps. The ape points out that there's even a provision in the lease that renders Harry responsible for "upkeep of the ape" and therefore, just like the last tenant, Harry has no choice but to live with his new roommate.

 There are, of course, shenanigans, and based on the premise alone I bet you can guess a few: Harry has an overbearing boss (Allison Bibicoff) that forces him to give a big presentation with short notice, Harry's wife is convinced he's seeing someone else while she works on pottery with her mentor, Flies with Eagles (David Markey), and Harry just can't seem to find time to write his novel. Because of the 800lb gorilla in the room, of course.

 So here's where it's pretty clear that The Ape is not a Happy Madison movie that goes exactly where you think it's going to, even when it does have similar narrative conceits. For one thing, Franco plays the whole thing like a drama, a serious, deadpan existential struggle that just happens to have a guy in a gorilla suit (that you can see light shining through in profile).

 Let's take a relatively simple gag from early in the film, one that would have the cheap seats howling with laughter in any other version of this story. Harry is resigned to living with the ape, but he insists that the gorilla is NOT sharing the bed with him. The ape, who has been taking what sounds like a really painful shit in the bathroom, flings his poop onto Harry and then jumps into the bed. The camera lingers on Franco for a moment, and then he lets out a scream of abject terror. Cue laugh track. The Ape is a movie that ends up being funny precisely because it's not funny. By design, I'd wager.

 Since he is the co-writer / director / star, I feel comfortable in assigning most of the tonal decisions to Franco, which makes The Ape a much more bizarre experience. It's hard to tell if he's making a comment about dumb gimmicks in comedies or if / when we are going to laugh at the film. I mean, it is funny, but almost never in the way a buddy movie with a talking animal normally is. In fact, it's hard to be sure whether the gorilla really exists or not. The landlady insists there's no clause in the lease, but Harry also gets lice from his roommate and it's so bad they have to send a memo out at work about it. There's a sense of "this is a low budget movie, so let's just go for it!" even when it isn't necessarily clear what "it" is supposed to be from scene to scene.

 Harry works for the HR department of the phone company, and there's a long scene about an hour into the film where Harry's co-worker Beth (Stacey Miller) has a conversation with another employee (Vince Jolivette) - who we've never seen before and won't see again - about what people really want out of life and then tangentially manage to tie it back into Harry, even though he's not in the room at any point.

 This isn't the only flourish that says "independent movie," by the way: as transitions, The Ape frequently cuts back to another primate that held up the title cards during the credits, and who will eventually let us know that the film jumps ahead "three months later." Franco, working with View Askew regulars Dave Klein (DP for most of Kevin Smith's films) and editor Scott Mosier (Smith's long time producer), makes a nice looking movie that only periodically looks like it was made on the cheap. I mean yes, there's a scene where Beth overhears Harry and his boss getting wild that's clearly out of focus and the transition from the beginning of finally writing his novel to the end of the first chapter is a little cheesy, but I can look past most of that. Even the performances, which range from pretty good to not so good, I don't mind. Credit where credit is due, Lally never overplays the gorilla - he's just sort of there, very matter of fact, and I kind of got a chuckle out of the line "I'm living the dream - I'm a gorilla living like a white man in the big city."

 However, The Ape takes a serious turn into "What the Hell Was That?" territory in the last ten minutes, making two rapid tonal shifts in a short span of time. Since I don't imagine many of you will ever watch this, I'll go ahead and say that yes, the titular character is a product of Harry's imagination, but that doesn't necessarily explain why Franco's hair is becoming more gorilla-like or the ape sex-doll he bought his buddy for Christmas. I'm pretty sure that was really there, although I guess you could argue that everything after Harry quits his job and loses his wife is totally in his head. Fair enough.

 The ending reminded me a little bit of the ending of Killer Joe - which while the movie technically came out after The Ape, the stage production is much older - in that while it's appropriate for the story being told, I'm guessing it works a lot better on stage than it does in the movie. Killer Joe at least went for abrupt ambiguity - The Ape literally fades the house lights before completely going to darkness.

 I gotta say that I admire Franco for making a movie like The Ape - it totally makes sense considering his life since Pineapple Express reads like an extended audition for I'm Still Here Part 2  - but I don't know that I'd watch The Ape again, or even recommend it. For one, I'm not entirely certain what Franco was saying or that he was successful in any of the possible readings of the story. I don't necessarily agree with the IMDB user review that said the movie was great because Franco was visibly high in scenes (I mean, it's possible, to be sure), but it's probably a little bit better than a 4.1.

 Well, maybe that's about right. I can't see many people that I know liking The Ape, or even really wanting to finish the movie, but I kinda appreciated the experience. If nothing else, it's going to change the way I watch Rise of the Planet of the Apes the next time I see it. It's an auspicious way to start off The ABCs of Movie Masochism, and that's what I was going for, y'know? Trying new things out...

 See you soon with "B" for Bullet to the Head, starring Sly Stallone and Jason Momoa.

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