Friday, 23 October 2015

Chunky Monkey (2003)

Shot over the course of a mere 14 days in 2000 for just £160,000, Chunky Monkey was held back from commercial release until 2003/04 thanks to some serious heat in the form of five separate litigation threats from Unilever (who own Ben and Jerry's ice cream brand) the creator of kids comic strip 'Chunky Monkey', the estate of Rogers and Hammerstein, EMI (who control the rights to the back catalogue of that illustrious composing partnership) and Julie Andrews.

Such controversy can make or break a film and former actor turned writer/director Greg Cruttwell must have breathed a sigh of relief when the release finally came through, before wholeheartedly embracing the furore his baby incurred by slapping such straplines as The film corporate giants tried to stop you from seeing!' and 'Warning: Contains moments of non-offensive material' on the DVD sleeve.

Unfortunately, he also pulled out lines from reviews from The Independent and Empire that liken the film to both Withnail and I and Abigail's Party and, frankly, they're two giants that any pretender will struggle to stand alongside and Chunky Monkey certainly fails in that context. I can perhaps see why they wanted to liken it to Mike Leigh's classic as the film concerns itself with the awkward horror of socialising with people you'd rather not deal with, and is directed and written by Cruttwell who played the odious and sexually abusive yuppie in Naked. It also features other Leigh alumni such as Threlfall, Alison Steadman and Roger Sloman, but it really does itself no favours attempting to draw such comparisons.

David Threlfall stars as Donald Leek, a seemingly mundane yet hot-tempered man from Burnley who enjoys the simple things in life, like exercise, Indian cuisine from his local restaurant - The Maharani -  and Julie Andrews. He has a strong dislike for single-testicled men such as his bullying, overbearing cousin Frank (David Schofield) and people who neglect to send him a Christmas card, such as The Maharani's proprietor Mr Azam, whom Donald has, at the start of the film, just sliced up into little pieces. 

Donald’s interest in Julie Andrews forms the basis of his “number one ambition in life”,  which is to apply Ben and Jerry's Chunky Monkey ice cream to the anus of the singer and actress and get her to sing ‘The Hills Are Alive’ before indulging in a bout of prolonged “back-passage sexual activity” 

Now can you see why the film attracted the interests of so many lawyers? 

In attempting to get as near as possible to his ambition, Donald has developed a relationship with a former professional singer, who bears a passing resemblance to Ms. Andrews and, more importantly, has a willingness to indulge in this sexual fantasy one Friday evening a month, commencing at 7:30pm. 

The film is set solely in Donald's flat on one such Friday evening as he discusses his life and interests direct to camera whilst he waits for his willing partner in the assignation to arrive. However, with just over an hour to spare, Donald's home is invaded by a string of uninvited guests which consist of two violent Christian skinheads or 'Chriskins' (Nicola Stapleton and Danny Nussbaum) who promise to show Donald a miracle if he's willing to let Jesus into his life, an annoying prattling neighbour (Alison Steadman), a libidinous European cheesy cabaret singer (Stephen Mangan), the aforementioned boorish cousin Frank (David Schofield) and his big-boobed blonde porn star girlfriend (Elizabeth Woodcock), and Jesus himself, reborn in the body of a black man with a huge affro who goes by the name of Trevor (Colin McFarlane) and wants to show Donald the aforementioned miracle.

Needless to say, all this unwanted disruption frustrates and irritates Donald and, as the sight of the bloodied remains of Mr Azam will testify, Donald is someone who doesn't deal at all with frustrations or irritations. 

If you like jet black humour then I would say Chunky Monkey is for you. There are some great lines, some wonderfully grotesque yet scarily realistic characters and some suitably excellent performances - notably Threlfall in the lead, but if you're after something truly shocking I would point you past those gleeful comments on the DVD sleeve and to the BBFC rating instead - 15. I actually think Chunky Monkey could have gone further really and it rather falls between stools in its attempt to amuse and shock in equal measure. As a film its a very talky piece, very tell not show and so overall very stagey, so much so that you can't help but think a film was totally the wrong medium for it. Indeed, as a film - a visual piece, it's incredibly lacking. Shot on HD cam in its early stages, the execution has little polish or flair and the one set/studiobound nature again convinces you that the material's natural home is the theatre, or perhaps as a TV movie which it certainly looks more like in terms of how it is shot. I also really don't think scoring virtually every single second of the film with a constant, irritating muzak was a good decision to make.

Despite it's dark subject matter and humour and its depravity and contentious nature, Chunky Monkey is, it can be argued, a film that has a dialogue with the spiritual. Donald is clearly someone who is attempting to live his own curious form of paradise, following his own heavenly pursuits and, as Mandy the chatty skinhead says at one point, “There’s many ways to follow the Lord” It's just abundantly clear that Donald is more Old Testament than New - or maybe I'm reading too much into what is essentially just a dark farce?

Overall, it's worth a watch, it is fitfully funny and you have to admire the balls of everyone involved but as an experiment it just isn't all that successful. If I had to rate it on performances alone then obviously I'd score it much higher, but as a film it can only get a two and a half out of five. It's available on DVD - I got mine for the princely sum of one penny on Amazon (not including the P+P) and the disc includes a short film by Cruttwell, a discussion on how the film came about and the subsequent legal wrangles and some musical interludes from Stephen Mangan.

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