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MOVIE REVIEW : A Quirky, Likable 'Monkey Zetterland'

August 25, 1993|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Imagine being a fledgling screenwriter working on a project that reveals the corruption that brought about the demise of L.A.'s streetcar system, the beloved big Red Cars in particular.

You might think it a topic best suited to "Chinatown's" highly experienced Robert Towne, but the feckless hero of the quirky and amiable "Inside Monkey Zetterland" (Sunset 5, Monica 4-Plex) forges ahead with the project despite the nonstop litany of distractions that make up virtually the entire film.

Steven Antin's Monkey has scarcely a moment's peace and quiet in his Spanish-style flat in the Fairfax area. He's forever being interrupted by his high-strung, possessive mother (Katherine Helmond), a veteran soap-opera star in constant fear of being written out of her show. Then he gives comfort and temporary shelter to his sweet-natured gay sister (Patricia Arquette), whose lover (Sofia Coppola) has deliberately become pregnant without consulting her.

Then there's an aggressive, neurotic neighbor (Sandra Bernhard) who throws herself at him continually, and there are some new politically radical tenants (Martha Plimpton and Rupert Everett). Also dropping by are Monkey's hippie father (Bo Hopkins), who shows up annually; his thin-skinned grandmother (Frances Bay); his hairdresser brother (Tate Donovan) and even a super-intense fan (Ricki Lake) of his mother.

The one person who's leaving rather than arriving is his bored lover (Debi Mazar), and even she is perpetually returning to pick up more of her stuff and give Monkey yet another piece of her mind. No wonder the guy's in therapy (with shrink Lance Loud), but even there his privacy is being invaded, for in return for free treatment he must submit to being observed by a bunch of medical students from behind a one-way mirror.

Antin, who also wrote the film, has a sharp ear for flaky dialogue and a bead on human foibles L.A. style, but he might well have considered going a bit further outside Monkey and suggested what role this highly impersonal city has in affecting behavior and an individual's sense of security (or lack of same).

Although "Inside Monkey Zetterland" is very much a writer's film, director Jefery Levy has managed to draw a quality of freshness from everyone in a very large cast. Along with Antin, the film's likable linchpin, Helmond, who plays against the cliches of the Jewish mother, and Plimpton, whose role is comically outrageous, have the showiest parts. "Inside Monkey Zetterland" (rated R for language) is modest yet undeniably distinctive.

'Inside Monkey Zetterland'

Steven Antin: Monkey Zetterland

Katherine Helmond: Honor Zetterland

Martha Plimpton: Sofie

Sandra Bernhard: Imogene

An I.R.S. release. Director Jefery Levy.. Producers Tani Cohen, Chuck Grieve. Executive producers Louis J. Perelman, Levy. Writer/co-producer Steven Antin. Cinematographer Christopher Taylor. Editor Lauren Zuckerman. Costumes Stephen Earabino, Hayley Marcus. Music Rick Cox, Jeff Elmassian. Production design Jane Stewart. Set decorator Wendy Weaver. Sound Craig Felberg, Stephen Tibbo. Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes.

MPAA-rated R (for language).

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