A charming comedy about contemporary life in L.A., “Inside Monkey Zetterland” is infused with a sophisticated gay sensibility. Although pic is populated by some gay and lesbian characters, its broad canvas, humanistic vision, magnetic cast and inspired writing extend its appeal to all manner of young, educated urban audiences. Prospects for theatrical release are excellent.
In his stunning debut as a scripter, Steven Antin demonstrates a rare appreciation for the eccentric details of today’s edgy, violent existence. At the heart of Antin’s poetic, loosely autobiographical comedy is the complex, oedipal relationship between aspiring writer Monkey Zetterland (Antin) and his domineering Jewish mother Honor (Katherine Helmond), a TV soap opera star.
Father Mike (Bo Hopkins), “a dictionary of 1960s cliches,” is not around much , but Monkey is close to his brother Brent (Tate Donovan), a handsome hairdresser and his mother’s favorite, and even more intimate with his lesbian sister Grace (Patricia Arquette), who moves into his house during a strain in her relationship with lover Cindy (Sofia Coppola).
Monkey’s biological family is only one aspect of his rich world, which contains a large network of friends, neighbors and strangers. Pic’s best sequences depict collective gatherings–Thanksgiving dinner, regular evenings in front of the TV–in which Monkey’s friends behave like one big, extended family, expanding the conventional meaning of “family life.”
Dealing with convoluted lives and romantic entanglements of no less than a dozen characters, pic provides astute meditation on love, loneliness and violence in present-day L.A. Like Steve Martin’s “L.A. Story,” the film is basically a love song to the laid-back, nutty city. Antin’s characters are just as charming as Martin’s, only younger, more eccentric and offbeat.
In tone, “Inside Monkey Zetterland” bears resemblance to Alan Rudolph’s best pics (“Welcome To L.A.,””Choose Me”), its ironic view and whimsical absurdity containing light and dark humor in equal measure. Nonjudgmental, the comedy refuses to distinguish between normal and abnormal, healthy and perverse, and shows love and empathy for each of the characters.
Fusing hipness and lyricism, Antin’s distinct comic vision perceives the world as both funny and odd, evincing a sense of wonder in the most mundane situations. Though dealing with somber events (random violence, tragic death), film is ultimately ennobling because of its emphasis on the will to survive.
Jefery Levy’s fluid, unforced direction avoids obvious jokes, achieving ironic laughs without overworking them and building humor through a leisurely accumulation of many small, telling details.
Unfortunately, the film falters in the last half-hour, becoming too cute and too TV-like in its artificial tempo. Pic also errs in deliberating on one of its least convincing subplots, involving a terrorist act against a homophobic insurance company. A pat, fairy-tale ending is also incongruent with the film’s dominant texture.
But the performers are terrifically charismatic, and helmer Levy handles his large cast with apparent ease, giving each thesp the chance to show off his/her special qualities. In the central role of the mother, Helmond provides the big, irritating personality on which much of the humor is dependent. Helmond and Antin display great chemistry in scenes that often crackle; one at Canter’s Deli is particularly hilarious.
Martha Plimpton almost steals the show as a bulimic, foul-mouthed activist, and Coppola gives a stand-out, shaded performance as a lesbian impregnated by a man she met at a Women Against Pornography rally.
Sandra Bernhard brings a mix of devious edge and light self-mockery to the eccentric Imogene who, among other hobbies, likes to photocopy her feet. Arquette carries off the sensitive sister with physical grace and verbal delicacy. Debi Mazar has an original fierceness about her as Antin’s g.f., who’s always in a hurry, and Rikki Lake provides another strong presence as a TV fanatic.
Production values for the small-budget project are superlative in every department. Christopher Taylor’s exquisite lensing has a snazzy verve, luminous yet informal. Lauren Zuckerman’s sharp editing brings a snap to the storytelling that makes it appear choreographed.
“Inside Monkey Zetterland” is funny, sharp-tongued and devious, but never wicked or nasty. Its resonant comedy is so attuned to the Zeitgeist that any urban dweller will find something relevant in it.