Many decades ago, my dad’s family used to have a pet monkey. According to him, it was an annoying little shit, not just upsetting its owners, but the neighbors, to the point where one of them snuck into the house and managed to poison it.
Yes, grim little story. Also grim is the story of Charla Nash, a woman whose face and arms were horribly damaged when she was attacked by a trained chimpanzee in 2009. I can only speak for myself, but between these two stories, there’s almost a sense of dread when it comes to anything dealing with human-primate relations. I’m not a card carrying animal rights activist, but there is a level of common sense when it comes to the well-being of animals in human contact. With primates, with their near-intelligence and arms that can punch a hole in your skull, you’re taking things to a whole new level. Every time one of those orangutans got anywhere close to Tony Danza, I really feared for his well being.
The opening scene of Going Ape! (1981), that of a circus stomping around a graveyard with lots of fanfare, accurately sets the tone for the rest of the film: disrespectful and mean-spirited, hiding behind the guise of goofy fun. Despite the “wacky” title and cast of trained orangutans, the film really goes out it’s way to let you know you’re not here to have a good time, that the world is full of awful people doing awful things to each other for no good reason. This isn’t a monkey comedy for the whole family as advertised. This is just mean!
Almost every character in this movie is hateful and unlikable. Our lead is Foster (Tony Danza), a thick-headed con artist selling “pieces of the cross of Christ,” which are just shavings from his writing desk. Foster’s entire extended family ran a circus, which Foster wanted no part of. As a bit of revenge for not being part of the family business, when Foster’s father, Max Sabatini, passes away, he bequeaths Foster five million dollars under the condition that he can successfully care for three circus orangutans for five years. Should he fail, the five million goes to the California Zoological Society. So, yeah, shit dad forces animals onto shit son who proceed to destroy his apartment and ruin his life.
Said Zoological Society really wants that five million, and all it would take to get it is to kill one of the orangutans. You know, I’m not an expert in this, but I’m pretty sure zoological societies don’t stuff their boardrooms with taxidermied animals and glasses made of warthog hooves. The film really needed a villain, I guess, so they went with… a zoological society. Why not make PETA the villain for the sequel, it makes about as much sense. So, the head of the society (Joseph Maher) hires on his underlings (Rick Hurst) to murder some primates, who in turn hires two stupid greasy Italian mafioso stereotypes (Art Metrano and Frank Sivero). I know this is supposed to be a screwball comedy, but the incompetence of these villains is outstanding, every single one of their plans is foiled by their own hands and have no meaningful interaction with the other human characters, I’m not even sure if Foster ever becomes aware of them, even after they’ve been defeated for good and the end credits are rolling.
The rest of the cast are just as nasty. We have Foster’s shrill unsupportive girlfriend Cynthia (Stacey Nelkin), Cynthia’s overbearing mother Fiona (Jessica Walter), who’s constantly trying to convince Cynthia to dump Foster, Foster’s alka-seltzer chugging lawyer (Howard Mann) who has ulterior motives of his own, and Foster’s sleezy, disgusting landlord (Leon Askin). Oh, and an old lady in an apartment across the way who keeps spying in like Rear Window. We get some brief scenes with Foster’s extended family, all of whom are greedy and loud, it’s no wonder that Foster left.
They’re all bad people! I want them all to get what’s coming to them! They’re not even comically bad people, this isn’t It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World we’re talking about, we’re talking filth of the Earth human beings who occasionally have their stuff broken by orangutans. There is ONE exception to all of this: Danny Devito as Lazlo, a foreign highwire performer (he might be Italian or Russian or Hungarian, I honestly can’t place his nationality) who crashes at Foster’s place. Devito seems to be the only one to realize this is SUPPOSED to be a screwball comedy, and so gives his character a lot of weirdness and a kind of Harpo Marx eccentricity. He is such a brief of a fresh air in this film, bouncing on the furniture and eating raw eggs and disguising himself as a maid and gets away with it despite his giant beard.
The most entrancing scene in the whole movie is when Lazlo gives Foster this epic monologue that lasts almost three minutes, but it’s in an untranslated foreign language, so you never have any idea what he’s saying. He’s just bouncing around, waving a spoon about and putting a banana on his head to illustrate his point, whatever that happens to be. The movie should have been about this guy. Also, there’s a subplot involving him trying to woo Fiona, giving us the surreal image of Frank Reynolds trying to seduce Lucille Bluth.
In terms of production quality, the film had a very made-for-TV vibe, with minimalist sets, boring camerawork, a whole host of TV actors and a plot about the antics of three orangutans. Which is odd when the characters start using nearly R-rated language. It’s surreal seeing character in a film that looks like a Disney Channel Original Movie yelling out “holy shit” and “Jesus Christ,” and at one point Tony Danza says “camel cock,” but I’m not entirely clear on the context. It just adds to the “these are horrible people, why are you watching this?” vibe. The height of poor taste and general awfulness comes in a scene when one of the mafioso chases the orangutans into a morgue, and while searching for them, peaks at the breasts of a dead woman. It’s just… Ugh. Oh, and they trained one of the orangutans to flip people off, so that’s nice.
The film was written and directed by Jeremy Joe Kronsberg, whose career began and ended with orangutans. He also wrote and produced Any Which Way But Loose (1978), a film about Clint Eastwood and an orangutan, a far superior primate movie. IMDb cheekily calls him the godfather of the modern ape chase movie, which I guess is a genre now. It’s kind of fascinating, like somebody should make a documentary on this guy, the man who made two orangutan movies.
So, yeah, I didn’t like this movie.
Going Ape! is available on Netflix Instant.