Judge Brendan Babish hates every ape he sees, from chimpan-A to chimpan-Z.
Harry Walker's life just got a little bit harrier.
Pretty boy actor James Franco (Spider-Man) makes his directorial debut with The Ape. The Ape is based on a play written by Franco and Merriweather Williams (formely head writer for Sponge Bob Square Pants), and was originally staged in Los Angeles's Playhouse West.
Facts of the Case
Harry Walker (Franco) is an aspiring novelist. He hasn't actually written a novel, or even a first sentence, yet he feels his genius is undeniable. Despite this, his family never seems to give him the peace he needs to work. Frustrated by the distractions, Harry moves away from his wife and child and takes refuge in a studio apartment. His plan is to spend six months writing what is sure to be a brilliant treatise on his own, uniquely exquisite pain.
Unfortunately for Harry, shortly after moving into his studio apartment he discovers he is not the only tenant. Living with Harry is a surly, wisecracking ape. Initially, living together proves challenging. However, the two soon bond over a love of the written word. The ape even proves to be a muse for young Harry, who finally finds his voice with the guidance of his simian friend.
I don't know if it's fair to judge The Ape as if it were any other movie. The Ape certainly doesn't seem like a movie. With its juvenile humor and high-concept plot, it comes off more like a bad sitcom than a feature film. Yet, while many bad sitcoms (think Charles in Charge or Saved by the Bell) are bad, their earnestness often engenders feelings of goodwill; or, if not goodwill, pity. The Ape engenders little except bewilderment and frustration. And when a movie is unfavorably compared with Saved by the Bell, that's bad.
The frustration comes from the film's overbearing pretension and vulgarity. The Ape is a silly film, full of vulgar, unfunny dialogue, yet it still aspires to provide sober commentary on the exquisite pain of the misunderstood artist. Ape (as Harry cleverly dubs his simian friend) is supposed to be the personification of the inner struggle involved in the creative process. On its face this is not a horrible idea. But putting the ape in a Hawaiian shirt and imbuing him with homophobic and vulgarian tendencies pretty much ensures this film will never be taken seriously. However, it is not merely Ape's coarseness that makes his character so grating. Though I can easily imagine a drunken film crew chuckling at Ape's antics, such as when throws his feces at Harry, they are simply not funny.
Harry is not much better. Actually, he is probably one of the most unlikable characters I have come across in quite some time. He is a pretentious writer, an unfaithful husband, a deadbeat father, and a lazy employee. Despite this, he still manages to exceptionally boring. It's boring to hear him pontificate on his misunderstood genius. It's boring when he complains to Ape about how no one understands him. Though Franco must be aware that he is embodying the negative archetype of a young artist, he does nothing, in his writing or his performance, to add depth to this unlikable man. Harry's not funny. He's not good at his job. He doesn't love his wife. Harry is almost a perfect storm of disinterest. There is nothing redeeming about him whatsoever. Even Franco's good looks are wasted on Harry. With his hair in a disheveled mini-afro for most of the movie, Franco seems determined to negate his natural, James Dean magnitude. He succeeds.
What diminishes The Ape below puerile bunk is its pretension. Between scenes Franco often cuts to quotes from Fyodor Dostoevsky, and employs classical music as if this would add instant depth to his movie. Obviously, it does not. In fact, Franco's high-minded attempts to enlighten in a movie about a boorish talking ape cause one to abandon any feelings of good will or sympathy towards his movie. Say what you will about Charles in Charge or Saved by the Bell, they always seemed to know their place as Saturday morning mindless swill. The Ape seems to lack the self-realization that it is a silly movie and any attempts to convey complicated ideas or emotions would be lost on its audience.
After watching The Ape my obvious question was: Why is James Franco in a movie about a talking gorilla? Then I remembered that Franco wrote and directed the film as well. This only begat more questions: Why did he write this? Who financed it? Isn't he supposed to be somewhat of a serious actor? Though I have not seen Franco in many of his recent films, he did a commendable job in Freaks and Geeks and obviously has that smoldering James Dean look down pat. Of all the young actors in Hollywood, few have as much upside as Franco. That is why watching him in The Ape is like catching a young gymnast stuffing her face with chicken wings and fried mozzarella sticks. Thankfully for him, this is a small film that hasn't been promoted too heavily. With luck, Franco will achieve major stardom and The Ape will merely be some strange curio you find in a bin next to the supermarket checkout line selling for $4.99.
TLA Releasing has put together an appropriately mediocre DVD of the movie. Though the sound is fine, the picture is fuzzy and flat. That said, I am not sure this is so much the fault of TLA, but rather a result of the film's small budget. The commentary track with James Franco, co-star Brian Lally (who plays Ape) and producer Vince Jolivette is much appreciated, as it gives those responsible for this film a chance to defend themselves. Franco does most of the talking, and he doesn't so much try to defend his film as explain the reasoning behind his decisions. This makes him come off as an apologist, often stammering to explain, for example, why the gorilla mask looks ridiculous (because "it's absurd"). The overall impression is that The Ape was not meant to be any sort of serious endeavor. It is mostly just a bunch of guys getting together and having some fun. Well, at least somebody enjoyed it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
While this film is horrible, I cannot deny it has the same appeal as watching two high-speed trains collide. It is rare to find a film where nearly every instinct is wrong. And yet, The Ape seems so certain of its humor and sagacity. On top of that, it is written, directed, and starring one of Hollywood's budding superhunks. For a midnight screening at your local independent movie theater, you could do a lot worse than The Ape.
Spinal Tap's David St. Hubbins once famously said, "It's such a fine line between clever and stupid." Well, as The Ape demonstrates, sometimes that line is not so fine.
It's even worse than the cover art would lead you to believe. Guilty, guilty, guilty!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: TLA Releasing
• Audio Commentary with James Franco, Brian Lally, and Producer Vince Jolivette
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