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MOVIE REVIEW : 'Dunston Checks In' Rates Five-Star Fun

January 12, 1996|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As the opening credits unroll for "Dunston Checks In," we are treated to a brisk montage of how a five-star hotel comes alive every morning--silver breakfast trays arranged just so, myriad surfaces polished till they gleam, the hotel's logo branded in every sand jar.

In a flash the filmmakers set a witty, sophisticated tone worthy of a "Grand Hotel" remake, but what they've got in store for us is a lot of monkey business, loaded with classic slapstick--plus a heartwarming story of how hard it is for a widowed luxe hotel manager (Jason Alexander) to be a hero to his young sons Kyle (Eric Lloyd) and Brian (Graham Sack). "Dunston Checks In" is a delightful and funny family film of exceptional high style.

Alexander's jovial, accommodating Robert already has his hands full running the glorious Art Deco Majestic in mid-town Manhattan and trying to be a single parent when the elegant Lord Rutledge (Rupert Everett) checks in. Long before anyone has a clue, Kyle and Brian discover that Rutledge is not exactly traveling alone: He is, in fact, a jewel thief who uses an orangutan named Dunston to do his dirty work. As the boys befriend the lovable, ill-treated orangutan, director Ken Kwapis and writers John Hopkins and Bruce Graham set in motion a classic farce that culminates at a major charity ball hosted by the hotel's imperious and exacting owner Mrs. Dubrow (Faye Dunaway), who rather clearly seems to have been inspired by Leona Helmsley.

"Dunston Checks In" is as light as a souffle and just as delicious. Dunaway, a sparkling comedian, looks gorgeous, but she's amusingly decked out in an over-the-top Ivana Trump wardrobe that's just perfect for her arch grande dame role. Everett has said his comically snobbish crook is a kind of homage to the late, beloved British comedian Terry-Thomas, whose plummy accents he recalls; he and Dunaway play the pretentious types that movie comedy has loved to deflate all the way back to Mack Sennett.

An archetypal beleaguered mensch, Alexander and his edgy relationships with his appealingly normal sons give the comedy some underlying poignancy and ballast. And then there's Dunston, played by an orangutan named Sam (with the aid of animatronics), who's irresistible yet wisely not allowed to overwhelm the humans in the plot. Also contributing strongly to the fun are Paul Reubens as a klutzy animal-control officer and Glenn Shadix as an especially beleaguered guest. Miles Goodman's jaunty score reinforces the film's high spirits and brisk pace.

For the fictional Majestic, production designer Rusty Smith has transformed the old Bullocks Wilshire, an Art Deco masterpiece, into the grandest of hotels, an inspired idea that fondly recalls the chic settings of many a '30s screwball comedy. "Dunston Checks In" is an instance where setting and atmosphere are crucial, and Smith and his team have delivered the goods meticulously, right down to the ashtrays. At a time when so many movies are weighed down with elaborate special effects and stunts, "Dunston Checks In" plays like a tribute to the resourceful, unpretentious studio productions of the past.

* MPAA rating: PG, for some mild language and sexuality. Times guidelines: suitable for all ages.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

'Dunston Checks In'

Jason Alexander: Robert

Faye Dunaway: Mrs. Dubrow

Eric Lloyd: Kyle

Rupert Everett: Rutledge

Graham Sack: Brian

A 20th Century Fox presentation. Director Ken Kwapis. Producers Todd Black, Joe Wizan. Executive producer Rodney Liber. Screenplay by John Hopkins and Bruce Graham; from a story by Hopkins. Cinematographer Peter Collister. Editor Jon Poll. Costumes Alina Panova. Music Miles Goodman. Production designer Rusty Smith. Art director Keith Neely. Set decorator Jim Samson. Running time: 1 hour, 28 minutes.

* In general release throughout Southern California.

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