By the time they got to the line, “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned, dirty ape!” I couldn’t help thinking, “Take your stinking paws off the franchise, Hollywood!” Do we really need another apes movie?
We do have one, though, and it’s good. We can skip over the way it departs from the explanation in the original films that humans (spoiler alert!) wipe ourselves out with nuclear war. The explanation in this prequel is better, more chilling, more visceral. James Franco plays Will, a dedicated pharmaceutical company medical researcher desperate to find a treatment for the Alzheimer’s that is stealing his father (John Lithgow) from him. The tests on a chimp are promising, but when a demonstration before the company’s board goes horribly wrong, the program is shut down and the chimps are killed. It turns out the test chimp was pregnant and gave birth to a baby before she was destroyed. Will brings the baby home to his father. They name him Caesar.
He meets or exceeds human development for the first few years. The changes caused in his mother by the experimental drug were passed on to him. But as happened in the real-life story of the chimp raised in a human home portrayed in the documentary, “Project Nim,” when he becomes strong and the hormones of puberty kick in, he can no longer live with Will. He is taken to a facility where the animals are abused by the staff (including Tom Felton, “Harry Potter’s” Draco Malfoy).
Will tries desperately to get Caesar back, as he works on an even more powerful drug to improve memory and cognitive ability. But the drug has some devastating consequences as well, and the movie’s niftiest twist is the way the two elements of elevating the apes and bringing down the humans are tied together.
After more than two months of superheroes and giant robots, it is nice to have a science fiction/fantasy film that thinks it’s a drama. Light on bombast and unexpectedly tender-spirited, the story is grounded in Will’s wanting to hold on to his father, a passion born of love and devotion that recklessly spills over into hubris. Greed, ignorance, and cruelty of others ignites the conflict. We see how increasing intellectual development affects strategy and decision-making, including deciding when it is time to break the rules. And we are reminded of how ruthless the process of the survival instinct in evolution can be, especially when humans are no longer the fittest.
There are some nice touches for fans of the series. A chimp plays with a Statue of Liberty and Charlton Heston, star of the original movie, appears on a television. We see the origin of the insignia that becomes meaningful to the ape-run society. But the deeper connection is to more, well, primal themes of freedom and justice. I kept thinking of the storming of the Bastille.
Andy Serkis, who did the motion capture body movements for Golum in the “Lord of the Rings” movies, provides the acting inside the CGI. Serkis gives a performance that brings Caesar’s expressive face and eyes to life. Even the whiz kids at WETA special effects still haven’t licked the gravity problem, though. The computer animated apes never quite feel as weighty as they should. But there are some stunning images as they swing through the trees and crash through windows. And when Caesar stands erect and looks Will directly in the eyes we may find ourselves wondering whose side we are on.
The movie has barely begun and Dave (Jason Bateman) already has projectile baby poop all over his face and in his mouth. There is so much excretory material in this film that doctors specializing in intestinal and urinary issues could probably get some continuing education credits for watching it.
It’s yet another body-switching movie, “Freaky Friday” with baby poop and (very) grown-up female nudity. It’s as if they took Goofus and Gallant from the pages of Highlights Magazine and put them in a screenplay that channels Judd Apatow (providing the raunch, the perpetually juvenile male, the fear of women, and the warm-hearted valentine to Leslie Mann) and Adam Sandler (puerile comedy, the perpetually juvenile male, the dislike of women, and the odd combination of treacly sentiment and brutal slapstick). The screenwriters of “The Hangover” and the director of “The Wedding Crashers” bring some high spirits and good-natured affection for their characters.
Dave is Gallant, a good husband, a good father, and a good lawyer, who loves his family but feels that he never has a moment for himself, between working on a big deal that will decide whether he makes partner, giving the twins their three a.m. bottles, and making it to “dialog night” with his wife. Dave’s lifelong friend is Goofus, I mean Mitch (Ryan Reynolds), whose primary occupations are smoking pot, and sleeping with as many girls as possible. His only successful achievement is disappointing his father (Alan Arkin). At that, he excels.
The two of them go out to watch a game at a sports bar. On the way home, they stop to pee in a fountain, and somehow that switches their souls. The next morning, Mitch wakes up in Dave’s bed, in Dave’s body, and Dave wakes up in Mitch’s bachelor apartment and rockin’ Sexiest Man Alive/looks-great-in-the-Green-Lantern-super-suit bod.
In a plot twist from body-switching movie “Big,” the magical fountain has been moved, and it will take a while for the local bureaucracy to track it down so they can pee themselves back to normal. And that gives Dave and Mitch a chance to live each other’s lives, alternating fantasy and excruciating humiliation, often simultaneously.
Dave takes Mitch’s body to what he says is his big opportunity as an actor. It turns out to be a “lorno” — light porno, which requires the straight-laced family man who got a vicarious thrill from his friend’s description of his highly varied sex life to get some non-vicarious misery. Meanwhile, Mitch as Dave manages to say the wrong thing in a crucial meeting and derail the big deal that would have made Dave a partner in his firm and at the three am feeding in the kitchen he puts the twins down next to the knives and electric sockets.
It is more fun to watch the two guys ease into each other’s lives. Dave rediscovers the pleasures of having time for himself. And Mitch for the first time discovers what it is to see something through. (And to see the kind of highly personal and private moments that only married couples allow each other to see.)
There’s not a lot of acting here; this is not “Face-Off,” where Nicolas Cage and John Travolta made a preposterous idea work with cleverly layered performances. Reynolds never masters Bateman’s dry delivery and Bateman’s attempt to incorporate Mitch’s wink looks more like a nervous tic. And the very talented Leslie Mann is underused in yet another disappointed wife role, especially when her “husband” forgets the very important “dialog night” and says he does not find her attractive. (She also does a nude scene that makes it hard to imagine anyone would forget her or find her anything but extremely attractive.) Olivia Wilde has some fun as a lawyer who has elements of both Dave and Mitch, giving warmth and a little vulnerability to a character who would otherwise just be a superficial fantasy figure.
The film’s strength is less its outrageousness than its unpretentiousness. This film has no ambition beyond making the audience laugh and it is good-natured enough to keep us on its side.
Of course the reviews of this week’s prequel, “Rise of Planet of the Apes” will refer to the previous movies and I look forward to seeing how many references to the earlier films they find in this one. I’m guessing it will be just about impossible for anyone to review the film without mentioning the current (and superb) documentary, “Project Nim,” the sad true story of a chimp that was raised by a family and used in language experiments and then subjected to unspeakable treatment in medical testing and then condemned to miserable solitude in the animal refuge that was supposed to be a loving home for him.
I’m going to keep an eye out and if there is a critic who does a particularly good job of bringing in these references (extra credit for bringing in the non-canonical Tim Burton “Apes” movie with Mark Wahlberg), I’ll put in a link.
The latest in the Family Movie Night series on NBC is Who Is Simon Miller? this Saturday, August 6, at 8/7 central. It is the story of a family discovery that the husband and father they thought they knew had another life — maybe many other lives. Stars include Loren Dean (“Say Anything” and “Mumford”) and Christine Baranski (“Mamma Mia”). It is an exciting spy story and a warm-hearted family drama. And it raises some good questions for family discussion about when it can be difficult to find the time and the right words to tell our families the things they should know — and about how getting away from our daily concerns can strengthen family bonds, even in a high-stress environment.
Some peeks behind the scenes:
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