Co-Stars Who Pass at the Border … Brendan Fraser Really Blows It

Co-Stars Who Pass at

the Border

These are no longer the

dog days, the silly days, the stop-time days of movies. These are the

death days. January and February are already ready for a memorial service.

Every movie that has opened in 2001 (with the exception of the brilliant The Pledge , with Jack Nicholson) has an

expiration date. Now, as we enter the third month of a new season, there is no

hope of relief in sight. Do we really have to wait through 10 more months of

famine until some benevolent soul throws us an intelligent bone in the two

weeks before Christmas? No wonder more people are staying home watching

television. Even the requisite daily installment of the martyred Clintons

facing lions and gladiators in the Washington arena, or a pitiful fiasco like These Old Broads -with ga-ga Elizabeth

Taylor matching dead brain cells with cadaverous über- bitches Debbie Reynolds, Shirley MacLaine and Joan Collins

(all lit, mascaraed and photographed like Quasimodo)-is more fun than what

we’re getting at the movies.

This week, the marquees change, but even the lure of star

power like Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts can’t save The Mexican . This convoluted twaddle, about two flaky bores and a

gaggle of mobsters battling each other for

possession of a valuable antique gun, is a head-scratching cross between

The Maltese Falcon , a violent Sam

Peckinpah epic and Rocky and Bullwinkle .

As a caper comedy, it makes no sense and serves no purpose. As a contrived

vehicle for a pair of today’s prettiest celluloid commodities, the two stars,

teamed for the first time, look dirty and awful.

He’s a nitwit named Jerry who rear-ends a mobster’s car

while there’s a body in the trunk. Because his stupidity is the reason the big

boss goes to prison, Jerry becomes an indentured servant to thugs who force him

to pay off his debt doing illegal odd jobs. His latest assignment: travel to

Mexico, retrieve an ancient pistol that looks like a prop in an old Roy Rogers

western and comes with a legendary curse, and return it and the mobster’s

grandson safely to L.A. without screwing up. As a gringo with “sucker” stamped

on his forehead, Jerry finds himself up to his blond, all-American shag

hairstyle in mayhem.

Meanwhile, en route to Las Vegas, his girlfriend Sam (Ms.

Roberts, looking rained on) is kidnapped and held hostage by a hit man named

Leroy (James Gandolfini) who is big, burly, homicidal and gay. Jerry’s

adventures on the lam in Mexico and Sam’s new role-playing Cupid to the hit man

and a gay postman they pick up on the road-are interspersed with monochromatic

flashbacks illustrating conflicting versions of the cursed pistol’s violent

history. While she acts as amateur matchmaker between the hit man and his boyfriend,

the gay psycho-killer becomes, in turn, a relationship counselor for Jerry and

Sam. As the deadly, mixed-up, dangerous but charismatic Leroy, the bear-like

Mr. Gandolfini (who plays Tony Soprano) easily steals the film. When you have a

subsidiary character stealing a film from Brad Pitt and Julia Roberts, you have

a film that is definitely having a nervous breakdown. It all ends badly, with

everyone hysterical and splattered with blood and mystified about what they’re

doing here in the first place.

Slobbering fans in a spasm over the thought of seeing two

contemporary heartthrobs together for the first time will be sadly

disappointed. We’re not talking Clark Gable and Ava Gardner here, but Brad and

Julia are about the best we’ve got in what passes for movie stars these days.

Alas, they seem to be in two different movies simultaneously. Except for one

scene in the beginning, where she throws him out of the house, and a screwball

sequence at the end, when she arrives south of the border to save him, their

roles are even played out in two different countries. The love story hidden

somewhere in the cactus is treated only glancingly.

The Mexican is a mess, haphazardly written by J.H. Wyman and more or less

“directed” by somebody named Gore Verbinski, whose previous film was the

idiotic Nathan Lane vehicle Mouse Hunt .

Both of them are graduates of the Coca-Cola, Nike and Budweiser school of

cinematic art. It shows. For a movie that is not about much of anything, The Mexican is full of short “takes,”

red herrings, false identities and a follow-the-dots trail of tangential twists

that aren’t interesting enough to analyze. It starts, re-starts, backfires,

runs out of gas, grinds to a halt, then starts again so many times you wonder

if it will ever end. It is obvious that nobody connected with The Mexican has ever heard of a

catalytic converter.

Brendan Fraser Really

Blows It

It gets worse. After agonizing through the moronic

indignities of a horror called Monkeybone ,

disasters like The Mexican start to

look good. The gifted but misguided Brendan Fraser plays a doofus cartoonist

who creates “America’s most disturbed comic strip” starring Monkeybone, an

obnoxious character named after his first adolescent erection. Naturally, a

pubescent society fueled by marketing greed and already choking on the raunch

of South Park demands a TV series.

Before he can finish the pilot and marry his long-suffering girlfriend, Mr.

Fraser lands in a coma and gets transported to a nightmarish world of

live-action, stop-motion and computer-graphics animation, a hell ruled by

Whoopi Goldberg and her brother (Giancarlo Esposito), who is half-goat. With

only six hours to go before the hospital pulls the plug on his life-support

system, Bridget Fonda, a sleep-disorder doctor, injects nightmare juice into

the comatose cartoonist to shock him awake, while Monkeybone steals his exit

pass and returns with the body of Brendan Fraser and the brain of Monkeybone.

In the jabberwocky that follows, Mr. Fraser makes simian

faces, hops around on all fours, jumps on women in a form of monkey lust, hangs

from grids and rafters, and makes a total ass of himself, while the real Mr.

Fraser is locked in a cell in hell shared by Jack the Ripper, Lizzie Borden,

Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe. (The presence of the latter two is a joke:

Mr. King, who plays himself, has given his

exit pass to Cujo, and Mr. Poe’s is being used by a raven. Ha, ha, I’m

clutching my kneecaps with laughter.) At this point, I gave up praying for

coherence and just concentrated on the outrageous costumes and rampant

stupidity.

Directed by Henry Selick, Monkeybone displays none of the imagination of his previous film, The Nightmare Before Christmas . This one

is frantic, embarrassing and witless; it is also trashy, scatological and

beyond salvage. The central recurring joke is flatulence, and there is entirely

too much of it. To promote this offense to the I.Q., the filmmakers have

commissioned and posted an Internet game in which a zoo monkey scores points by

hitting passersby with its own doo-doo. This is what movies have come to, guys.

Only a sadist would send a child to see Monkeybone .

It’s a nightmare from start to finish-too vulgar for kids and too vomit-making

for grownups.

The worst nightmare of

all is the heartbreak of watching Brendan Fraser trash his own career. He spent

a year buffing up for George of the

Jungle , then turned into a walking pudding. Time to go back to the gym,

fellow. You’re too young to look so puffy, bloated and baggy-eyed. After this

intolerable garbage, one is reluctantly forced to surmise that either the

sensitive performance he gave in the brilliant Gods and Monsters was just a fluke, or Mr. Fraser should fire his

agent and save his career.

Treats For Tired

Ears

In cabaret, two exceptional musical treats await your

enjoyment: At Feinstein’s at the Regency, the irresistible, irrepressible Nell

Carter ain’t misbehavin’ when she calls her new show “Something for Everyone.”

A pinch of country, a throbbing soupçon of Brazil, a raucous rack of rock, a

lusty jigger of jazz and a snifter of blues are among the house specialties

she’s serving through March 3. Her fine Duke Ellington tribute features the

most syncopated “Take the A Train” since Betty Roche, a haunting “Solitude” and

a swinging, double-barreled arrangement of “I’m Beginning to See the Light”

that bounces off the walls and soars through the doors all the way out onto

Park Avenue. Accenting every fifth note on “Rio de Janeiro,” she investigates

the bossa nova with a finesse I never thought possible. And her lovely,

transcendental job of acting and phrasing on the celebrated “One for My Baby”

makes you turn around to see if there’s really a bartender named Joe behind

you.

Of course, the highlight is the brassy, blushingly direct

medley of Fats Waller songs with which she stopped the show nightly on Broadway

in Ain’t Misbehavin’ . They sound

brand-new. She’s such a versatile, broadly funny actress that it’s easy to

forget what a good singer she is. This is not really an “act” in the sense of

the scripted bores that are cluttering up cabaret these days. Her patter is

refreshingly improvised, the songs are carefully selected treasures she likes

to sing, and her style is as accomplished as it is eclectic.

Everything seems personal and intimate and sincere; at the

same time, she gives herself room to breathe and grow and share. Nothing feels

forced or directed or shaped by somebody else’s ideas of what a cabaret act

should be. And the talent is abundant. She has an impressive range and a

multitude of feelings, and there’s a chorus line doing the time step in her

larynx. You go away with the feeling that you’ve been royally entertained while

getting to know an extraordinary performer better. Nell Carter is the real

deal.

At the Algonquin’s fabled Oak Room, don’t miss Dave

Frishberg, a groovy singer-pianist-songwriter and icon to hip vocalists

everywhere, who is appearing through March 10. This is a rare opportunity to

see and hear the sophisticated composer of such classics as “Peel Me a Grape,”

“I’m Hip” and “Do You Miss New York?” in an intimate setting. An accomplished

musician who can play stride piano, fluffy riffs or pretty chords when ballads

demand, he’s a treat for tired ears weary of the same old routines. In this

solo performance, he sings in a unique voice reminiscent of Bob Dorough

cross-pollinated with Mose Allison, and peers over the top of his grand piano,

owlish and balding with steel-rim spectacles, like a kindly college professor

who, after a daunting composition class, just might offer his best students a

reefer.

Treating the Algonquin like his living room, he shares works

in progress, revives old favorites like “My Attorney Bernie,” and offers

musical tributes to Marilyn Monroe, saxophonist Zoot Sims and comic-strip

supersleuth Brenda Starr, pouncing on the keys not like a kitten but more like

a puma. There’s even the world premiere of a brand-new song, co-written with

the great arranger Johnny Mandel, called “Little Did I Ever Dream” that’s based

on a legendary Stan Getz recording, “Hershey Bar.” From the way all the singers

in the room were leaning forward to catch every word, I think it will turn up

on a number of future CD’s. It’s heartening to hear accessible jazz played with

heart and soul and minimal intros, without 5,000 words on the history of the

song or the era in which it was written. In fact, it’s a relaxed and rewarding

privilege just to hear Dave Frishberg in any room in New York. He should visit

more often, and stay much longer.