3000 Miles to Graceland Is a Fair Assessment of American Ambition Gone Wrong; Monkeybone's an Ingenious Satire

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Sideburns, ducktails, money, blood and sex?that's the satirical surface of 3000 Miles to Graceland. Underneath is a pretty fair assessment of American ambition gone wrong. Kevin Costner plays Murphy, a sociopath obsessed with Elvis Presley who rounds up a gang to rob a Las Vegas casino during an Elvis imitators' convention. If the symbolism's bloated, so is the idolatry that Costner and director Demian Lichtenstein deride. Presley's legend haunts the movie as a fat, gaudy, bankrupt ideal that still serves to motivate the disheartened.

Murphy and his partner Michael (Kurt Russell), desert mom Cybil (Courteney Cox) and her ragamuffin son Jesse (David Kaye) aren't doomed, they're pathetic, double-crossing each other in ways that suggest the hollowness of life predicated on money; losers who console themselves with the world's plunder. 3000 Miles' early climax?the robbery sequence?is the most calamitously violent action scene ever to put a thought in the audience's mind. Unlike Kubrick's inexorable fatalism in The Killing, this sequence is just blunt. "As wild and as daring as anything on the American landscape," says a startled tv reporter. (Or else, simply the best contemporary shootout Walter Hill didn't direct.) Though it's similar to the kind of pointless bang-bang moviegoers accept as a Saturday Night Special, I vouch for the split-second editing that catches a bullet going through an Elvis cape. And I salute the cut to the exterior that shows a chopper coming to rendezvous with Murphy's band. Suspended in midair?and time?this image, hovering over the casino, is breathtaking.

The entire movie has the feel of being in moral suspension. Despite the caper plot and bloody intensity, this isn't a typically cynical neo-noir. That War in Vegas sequence establishes a spangly, neon miasma so that we watch the peacetime story appropriately aghast at the evidence of contemporary dissolution. 3000 Miles tracks pessimistic ex-cons, broken families on the road, boys without role models, casual venality, the familiarity of violence. It's flashy but it's also uncanny. The story of Michael's corruption opposes Murphy's hopeless corruption (announced in the 3-D credit sequence). It seeks decent, humane gestures (among them, Ice-T keeping thieves' honor through a spectacular sacrifice) and, with a sense of topsy-turvy grace, moves toward light. Michael, Cybil and Jesse sail off into uncertain political waters just like the characters in Peckinpah's The Killer Elite. If critics mistake 3000 Miles for a Renny Harlin jamboree (or instead, find it inferior to such trash), it will prove how far we've fallen, no longer looking for meaning or emotion in action movies.

No actors are more empathetic than Russell and Costner. Both leathery and wizened, they're surrounded by character types (David Arquette, Bokeem Woodbine, Howie Long and Christian Slater) distinctive enough to sharpen Jesse's?our entire culture's?sense of role-model fatigue. That Murphy, with his scorpion belt buckle, was a Nam medic before going bad signals deep distress that might be vague to today's audience. Still, Lichtenstein, searching for the right, meaningful detail, uses the action genre as a dramatic form expressing the modern generational dilemma?without being lugubrious like Sean Penn's The Pledge. Lichtenstein and cowriter Richard Recco come up with a saying for our times when Murphy, in a fight, is told, "That's your criminal right!" The line transcends sarcasm; it bravely discloses a genuine social imbalance?as in such nonpresumptuous action flicks as George Armitage's Vigilante Force. I fear that 3000 Miles might speed past many people's heads just as the 70s road-movie alienation of Duets did last fall. These entertaining little movies hint at Americans' barely articulated desires for a change of priorities and enlightened models of behavior. That overworked, blustery Elvis image (which serves as a conscripted uniform for Murphy's gang) should provide a wake-up call even to those who share Greil Marcus' wet dream.

Directed by Henry Selick

From brain to hand, pen to paper, cartoonists draw a direct line to satire. They convert complex events into easily readable?and instructive?exaggerations. But what's a film satirist, who works with a more cumbersome apparatus and inflexible genres, to do? Henry Selick, the protege-director on Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, combines a cartoonist's love of caricature with delirious personal conviction in Monkeybone, an ingenious, perhaps too driven satire that conveys a cartoonist's inspiration, creativity and chaos.

Selick makes a lot of points and hits a lot of targets. Big-time success troubles Stu Miley (Brendan Fraser), the creator of a popular comic strip. He worries about being caught up in corporate synergy; his impending marriage to research scientist Julie (Bridget Fonda); and his cautious libido?the latter symbolized by his oft-merchandised cartoon creation. Stu debuted the ever-popular Monkeybone (a sort of impish Curious George) in an autobiographical cartoon about a horny adolescent. Aroused by a middle-age schoolteacher's flabby arms, the embarrassed cartoon kid tries hiding his erection with a stack of textbooks. "It was like putting a baseball cap on the Washington Monument," Stu's alter ego panics. "And suddenly, there he was...Monkeybone!"

At such moments Monkeybone suggests a grownup version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Selick uses updated animation techniques to puncture the saccharine conventions of the form Disney has dominated. Cel-ebrating ribald possibilities, he unleashes anarchy. But that's only one panel in Selick's storyboard. With a host of digital visual effects at his command?a veritable convocation of all the effects houses that matter (the credits list 15 of 'em!)?Selick proves even more profligate than Stu. Monkeybone goes in different stylistic directions the way the extraordinary special effects of The Phantom Menace showcased different galaxies. Whether Stu's in the real world or Downtown (his coma state following an accident), inventive sight gags portray screwball Hollywood premarital jitters, even underworld weirdness; every trope a designer's/cartoonist's tour de force.

It's a tribute to Selick's imagination?his wit for different kinds of satirical exaggeration such as a depot area titled "Psychological Baggage"?that the movie never feels decadent or wasteful (like Chris Rock's trip to the other side in Down to Earth). Each effect, such as Stu cupped in a giant mechanical hand, evokes age-old mythology ("Jack and the Beanstalk," Cocteau's The Eternal Return) given a jocular edge. Throughout Monkeybone, Selick condenses the subculture of American adolescent surrealism?homegrown monsters as etched in school notebooks, underground comix, puppets of various sizes and assorted movie- and tv-style toons. It may be too wild to satisfy on the simple level of the current, acceptable Recess: School's Out. But though Monkeybone's visual and dramatic satire never fully cohere, its ambition is always impressive.

Maybe that half-hour reportedly cut since the film was first scheduled for release last fall made connections between traditional pen-and-ink animation and computer graphics?explaining Stu's distaste for the technological rapacity of the studios and ad agencies lusting to capitalize on his creation. Maybe a plot point clarified the irony between Stu's therapeutic drawings and the sexual dynamism that only erupts through Monkeybone. During the credits, a show of handiwork, drawings and toys recalls the opening of Being John Malkovich; it makes you expect an erotic allegory connecting Stu's psyche to his groin. Yet, the descent into Stu's imagination (he's described as the author of "America's most disturbed comic strip") isn't disturbing enough. Selick's fondness for stop-motion animation lacks that eerie Ray Harryhausen sensuality. There's just relentless imaging, the frenzy of nonstop doodling (an effect Tim Burton already finessed in Beetlejuice). The story seems erratic, loosely patched together. In the difficulty of erecting Monkeybone's huge endeavor, Selick's subliminal concept wilts?the unconscious feelings that flowed through Stu's pen?and, once Monkeybone takes over, the violent sexuality and fearsome greed that command Stu's body dissipate.

Julie's work on the chemical basis of nightmares?dubbed "Oneirix"?does little more than recall the potion in Howard Hawks' Monkey Business. (Though not even slapsticky Cary Grant worked his ass as much as does Fraser doing simian tricks, sniffing his armpits, making a crotch canopy over Fonda's head.) These libidinal monkeyshines coexist with a Pandora's box of behavioral quirks. Monkeybone's reliance on black fetishism to convey Stu's drives is far more outrageous than Hawks or even the Bloodhound Gang's Darwinian music video The Bad Touch. Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On," Jimi Hendrix's "Foxy Lady" and Minnie Riperton's "Loving You" underscore different sexual eruptions. And when Stu enters Thanatos, he meets Whoopi Goldberg (wearing an eye patch) as Death and Giancarlo Esposito as Hypnos, the guardian of sleep. Hypnos is a cross between a man, a goat and a tick, but essentially he's a (subconsciously rendered) golem of black exoticism. Don't pshaw me. Selick's satire doesn't analyze these complications in Stu's (America's) psyche. Having the best of Hollywood's f/x at his disposal, he simply compiles a unique Rorschach.

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