Adorable orangutan can't carry 'Dunston' Movie review: If only Jason Alexander brought his 'Seinfeld' character to the film . . . but he doesn't.

January 12, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

See, I don't want a Jason Alexander movie.

What I want is a George Costanza movie.

Jason Alexander is a pleasant, if largely unremarkable, young actor, and to put him in the center of a movie is to mark it as pleasant, if largely unremarkable.

George, the character Jason plays on "Seinfeld" if you've been on Mars, is one of the great icons of our age, a Leopold Bloom or Raskolnikov for the '90s, a greedy little acolyte of the cult of self whose mercenary desperation is always undercut by a tide of liar's phlegm rising in his throat, a congenital slipperiness of his eyes, and a sweat-drenched upper lip. He's all hat and no cattle. He sums up our age's pathological self-infatuation, its denial of ideology, its total commitment to appetite. He is Dork, hear him whine.

Alas, George is nowhere in sight in "Dunston Checks In." Nor is the fine, dark comic edge he might bring with him; only mild-mannered, unremarkable Jason, as the beleaguered manager of a Manhattan luxury hotel who is oppressed by his two adorable sons, the owner's Leona Helmsly-like wife, and a large, orange orangutan running through the duct system.

"Dunston Checks In" checks in somewhere between cute and zany. It's never really funny, but director Ken Kwapis has a low flair for slapstick that occasionally ignites a spark or two, as when the movie's dragon lady gets launched into a giant green cake or when two society ladies sip tea while in the background, in the greenhouse, Alexander makes like Jane to Dunston's Tarzan.

The ape is a natural charmer, with arms twice as long as his legs, a face that looks like a frying pan mulched into a watermelon covered with fur, and two eyes so slurpily warm with empathy you long to cuddle the thing and whisper endearments into its fuzzy ears. He's so sweet he makes Bonzo look like a drug enforcer.

Plot? The usual junk. Dunston checks in at the behest of jewel thief Rupert Everett (in a good Jeremy Irons impersonation), but he soon abandons a life of crime for the unfettered freedom of the ducts. The two boys (Eric Lloyd and Graham Sack) spot him, and bond with him, but never quite succeed in bringing him under control. Wouldn't you know it, all this happens the same week a prominent society ball is slated and a mystery investigator from a posh travel rating service has arrived to consider awarding the place a rare sixth star.

Faye Dunaway is surprisingly restrained as the Leona clone; so far gone is the brittle energy of her Joan Crawford turn that her role seems far mellower than the movie could use. In terms of edge, Dunaway went thataway.

In fact, edge is nowhere in view, and that's particularly true of Alexander, who is so bland you suspect his first name might be Lamar, not Jason.

'Dunston Checks In'

Starring Jason Alexander and Faye Dunaway

Directed by Ken Kwapis

Released by Twentieth Century Fox

Rated: PG

Sun score: ** 1/2

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