W.C. Fields knew to avoid cute kids and adorable animals in his pictures. The same cannot be said for the makers of “Dunston Checks In.” But in this instance the result is more than just sweet — it’s a first-class, stylish farce with a brisk pace and cool wit. The monkeyshines should prompt a high occupancy rate for this hotel-set comedy, which has a cross-generational appeal that will translate overseas and should generate strong video sales. It also seems a likely candidate for sequel or spinoff projects.
Robert Grant (Jason Alexander) manages the upscale Majestic Hotel in L.A. A widower, he’s raising two boys (young Eric Lloyd, teenager Graham Sack), who look upon the venerable hostelry as their private playground. They’ve been warned to cool the hijinx with the impending visit of capricious, slightly ruthless owner Mrs. Dubrow (Faye Dunaway).
The iron mistress informs Grant that an agent of the prestigious Le Monde guide is expected. He’ll be traveling incognito, but if everything runs with precise Swiss movement, the Majestic stands to be the first U.S. hotel to earn a six-star rating. To that end, it’s clear Robert is expected to give it more than just the old college try.
In the tradition of classic farce, a misunderstanding arises that sets the wheels in motion for some antic fun. A new guest, Lord Rutledge (Rupert Everett) , is mistaken for the discreet inspector when he’s spied (via hidden camera) scrupulously inspecting the edifice’s nooks and crannies. Actually, he’s scouting the terrain for security breeches that will allow him to practice his real vocation — thievery.
He’s abetted by a dexterous simian named Dunston (Sam), who’s adept at second-story work. But Rutledge has a mean streak, and Dunston flees into the duct works of the establishment. When he popsout, it’s to adopt Robert’s son Kyle (Lloyd). The orangutan is adroit at keeping himself hidden, and everyone dismisses the young boy’s claims about the ape.
While the Majestic is aptly named, there’s something reassuring about setting the comedy within its confines: Pic echoes the zaniness of the Marx Brothers or such successful farces as “What’s Up, Doc?”
Director Ken Kwapis displays a deft touch, balancing realistic elements and outsize characterizations. Pic’s unflagging pace and the unexpectedly witty script by John Hopkins and Bruce Graham complement the simplicity of this construct.
Alexander is a confident anchor for the evolving chaos. When he does spin out , it’s to good effect. Everett and such eccentric guests as the portly Glenn Shadix and exterminator Paul Reubens provide the picture’s major laughs. Lloyd, last seen in “The Santa Clause,” proves neither a one-shot wonder nor the victim of false sentimentality, and Sam the orangutan was born to play the title simian.
A wonderfully stylish piece, the smooth package is handsomely lensed by Peter Collister and designed by Rusty Smith. “Dunston Checks In” has the look of something suited for children but has decidedly wider appeal, as the reservations of mature viewers would mostly evaporate within minutes of its hitting the screen.