Inside Monkey Zetterland

L.A. International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, July 1992—-Inside Monkey Zetterland, a charming comedy about contemporary life in L.A, is infused with a sophisticated gay sensibility. Though pic contains some gay and lesbian characters, its broad canvas, humanistic vision, magnetic cast, and inspired writing broaden its appeal beyond gay and lesbian audiences. Prospects for theatrical release are excellent, with pic targeted to young, educated audiences in urban centers.

In his stunning debut as a scripter, Steven Antin demonstrates a rare appreciation for the eccentric details of our edgy and violent existence. At the heart of Antin's poetic comedy, loosely based on his life, is the complex, oedipal relationship between Monkey Zetterland (Antin), an aspiring writer, and his domineering Jewish mother (Katherine Helmond), a famous TV soap-opera star. Father Mike (Bo Hopkins), “a dictionary of l960s 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 he meets at the Public Library or on the street. Inside Monkey Zetterland renders a new meaning to “family life.” Pic's best sequences are collective gatherings–Thanksgiving dinner, regular evenings in front of the TV–in which Monkey's friends behave like one big extended family.

Dealing with convoluted lives and romantic entanglements of no less than a dozen characters, lyrical pic provides astute meditation on love, loneliness, and violence in present-day L.A. Like Steve Martin's vehicle L.A. Story, the film is basically a love song to laid-back and nutty L.A. Antin's characters are just as charming as Martin's, only younger, more eccentric and off-beat.

In its tone, Inside Monkey Zetterland bears resemblance to Alan Rudolph's best pix (Welcome to L.A., Choose Me). Like Rudolph, Antin's ironic view and whimsical absurdity contain light and dark humor in equal measures. Nonjudgmental, the comedy refuses to distinguish between normal and abnormal, healthy and perverse. Antin's achievement as a writer is in showing love and empathy for each of his characters, including Daphne (Debi Mazar), the girlfriend who leaves him, taking the yellow curtains (now a sexy dress) she has given him as a present.

Fusing hipness and lyricism, Antin's distinct comic vision perceives the world as both funny and odd. And he possesses a rare capacity to evoke a sense of wonder in the most mundane situations. Though dealing with somber events (random violence, tragic death), the film is ultimately ennobling, because of its emphasis on the will to survive.

Jefery Levy's unforced direction avoids obvious jokes; he doesn't go at his subject in the blunt TV sitcom style. Levy achieves the ironic laughs without working hard to get them and without squeezing them. Helmer lets comedy build through a leisurely accumulation of many small telling details.

It's too bad the film falters in its last half hour: It gets too cute in its set-ups and too TV-like in its artificial tempo. Pic also errs in deliberating on one of its least convincing sub-plots, involving a terrorist act against an homophobic insurance company. And a pat, fairy-tale ending is incongruent with the film's dominant texture.

But Antin and Levy have rounded up terrifically charismatic performers. Helmer handles large cast with apparent ease, giving each character actor the chance to show off his/her special qualities. In the core role of the mother, Helmond provides the big, irritating personality, on which much of the humor is dependent. Displaying great chemistry, Helmond and Antin's scenes often crackle; one at Canter's Deli is particularly hilarious.

Limited space precludes discussion of each member of the uniformly talented ensemble. Still, Martha Plimpton almost walks off with the film as a bullimic, foul-mouthed activist. As a lesbian impregnated by a man she met at a Women Against Pornography rally, Sofia Coppola gives a stand-out, multi-shaded performance.

Sandra Bernhard brings to the role of Imogene, an eccentric who among other hobbies likes to xerox her feet, a mixture of devious edge and light self-mockery. Patricia Arquette carries off the sensitive sister with physical grace and verbal delicacy. Debi Mazar has an original fierceness about her as the girlfriend who's always in a hurry, and Rikki Lake provides another strong presence as a fanatic TV fan.

Production values of small-budget picture are good in every department. Christopher Taylor's exquisite lensing has a snazzy verve; it is luminous yet informal. Lauren Zuckerman's sharp editing brings snap to the storytelling, which makes it appear choreographed.

Inside Monkey Zetterland is funny, sharp-tongued and devious, but never wicked or nasty. Resonant comedy is so attuned to the zeitgeist that any urban dweller will find something relevant in it.