There are 30 or so minutes of inspired silliness to be savored in “Joe’s Apartment,” the world’s first live-action musical comedy in which singing and dancing cockroaches perform elaborate production numbers. Unfortunately, that won’t be enough to get many people to sit through an 80-minute feature. Warner Bros. opted to toss the film out its corporate back window July 26, without benefit of press previews. Pie may create a brief stir on what’s left of the midnight-screening circuit, but likely won’t find its most appreciative audience until it’s available to video viewers armed with fastforward remotes.
The MTV production is an expanded version of an award-wining short that first aired on the music-video cable network in 1992. Written and directed by first-time feature helmer John Payson, creator of the original short, pic combines real actors, real roaches and computer-generated images, often to very amusing effect.
Top-billed Jerry O’Connell (of TV’s “Sliders”) plays Joe, an ingenuous young man from Iowa who gets mugged three times in rapid succession as soon as he steps off the bus in New York City. Things only get worse after he lucks into a seedy but affordable apartment in a Lower East Side slum. The unscrupulous landlord (Don Ho — yes, Don Ho) has hired two vicious thugs to chase all tenants out of the building so the site can be sold to the city for a new maximum-security prison. Those tenants who won’t move are exterminated.
Fortunately, Joe has new friends who laugh in the face of exterminators: Ralph (voiced by Billy West) and Rodney (Reginald Hudlin), two cocky cockroaches who serve as unofficial ringleaders for the thousands of other roaches who share Joe’s apartment.
Pic is funniest when it sticks to wringing every possible laugh from its exuberantly weird one-joke premise. Thanks to the modern miracle of special effects — along with a little help from “roach wrangler” Ray Mendez — the audience is entertained by dozens of singing, dancing and wisecracking insects. There are roaches who perform barbershop-quartet ballads, roaches who get frisky with country tunes and roaches who perform spectacular aquatic numbers — in the apartment’s grimy toilet bowl — that are equal parts Busby Berkeley and Esther Williams. At the very end, there’s even a roach version of a rousingly uplifting gospel choir.
But wait, there’s more: Roaches tune in to an underground cable network where talkshow host Charlie Roach tries to maintain some degree of civility while a pigeon, a rat and a squirrel debate the possibilities of peaceful coexistence. Juvenile? Maybe. Funny? Very.
After he gets over his initial misgivings about sharing his digs with so many six-legged roommates, Joe accepts the roaches. A good thing, too, since he needs their help to win the heart of Lily (Megan Ward), an idealistic bureaucrat who dreams of converting inner-city vacant lots into lush flower gardens. Lily just happens to be the daughter of Sen. Dougherty (Robert Vaughn), who just happens to be in league with the unscrupulous landlord.
Unfortunately, nothing that any of the humans contribute to “Joe’s Apartment” is nearly as interesting as the musical numbers and comedy riffs of the cockroaches. O’Connell makes an agreeable impression simply by being such a good sport about interacting with, and being upstaged by, the insects. But Payson has failed to give him anything particularly funny to do or say. The other two-legged actors fare even worse, and often seem more cartoonish than the computer-generated insects.
Jim Turner is painfully unfunny as a performance artist with an unprintable last name, while Vaughn is reduced to dropping hints of a secret life as a transvestite. A passing thought: Did Vaughn keep his wardrobe from Blake Edwards’ “S.O.B.”?
Tech values, including the spectacularly squalid production design by Carol Spier, is first-rate. The roaches look like, well, real roaches, but are charismatic enough to overcome any possible gross-out factor. Of course, the very fact that this is a movie about cockroaches will be enough to keep away some people.