Oddly pleasing 'Monkey' will do as film for all ages

March 19, 1994|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

Imagine a children's film directed by Abel "The Bad Lieutenant" Ferrara and you get a pretty good idea of the recondite pleasures contained in "Monkey Trouble."

Ferrara didn't direct, of course; he was busy doing "Body Snatchers." But this strange little movie unreels as if he did, complete to using some of his iconographic stars, Harvey Keitel and Victor Argo.

This is exactly the sort of story no one at Disney ever thought of, and if they did, they'd be fired. It has a weird and resonant subtext of menace, yet at the same time is resolutely sunny.

Keitel is a gypsy organ grinder with a trained monkey. You're impressed, no? How long has it been since one of those has figured in a movie? But not only does this clever-boots of a simian dance and hold out a little tin cup, he nimbly helps himself to Rolexes and Cartiers from the wrists and fingers of the gullible along the Venice, Calif., boardwalk.

But these gleanings are small potatoes compared to the arrival of Keitel's Big Break, which is an opportunity to sublet his and his monkey's skills to the Mafia. After settling on the deal, he unfortunately gives the monkey a whack and off it goes.

What? Not another "monkey runs away from home" movie! Why, they make one of those at least every 61 years, the last being "King Kong."

The monkey comes to nest at the apartment home of little Eva (Thora Birch). And wouldn't you know it, she's been longing for a pet and, being a typical child of a newly recombined family from the parts of two previously broken ones, she's achingly vulnerable.

The monkey -- she calls him Dodger -- soon absorbs every ounce of her otherwise thwarted love. Too much time in the film is devoted (after the fashion of "Home Alone") to her ingenious ways of shielding his existence from her family in the cramped apartment, while she trains him not to steal. At the same time, we watch as the desperate Keitel tries to track him down.

Through all this, there are dark undercurrents. First, the creature itself: He's not cute, though the movie seems to think he is. Rather, he's a spooky little being with short teeth, sharp features and the feral eyes of a killer. He peeps, he squeaks, he shivers, he swings; I kept expecting him to blossom bloodily out of somebody's chest, that's how alien he is.

And there's Keitel, who far from being the threatless, generic crook of the Joe Pesci-Daniel Stern school, is a figure of intense discomfort, with his blackened, metalized teeth, his limp, his greasy hair. Everything about him is creepy.

"Monkey Trouble" could be a half an hour shorter, easily, but it's both original and discordant. It's the rare child's movie that will keep adults off balance the whole way.

MOVIE REVIEW

"Monkey Trouble"

Starring Thora Birch and Harvey Keitel

Directed by Franco Amurri

Released by New Line

Rated PG

** 1/2

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