Ronnie Ookdocki’s Simian Cinema #1: Dunston Checks In

Welcome to Ronnie Ookdocki’s Simian Cinema (credit to Kitty Quitmeyer for coming up with the good part of the name, while I’m responsible for the ‘ook’ bit). I am simultaneously amazed and fearful of apes and monkeys; they’re like us, but they’re so strong most of them will rip you apart if they get sick of your shit. Even golden lion tamarins are known to pluck a man’s eyes out and skullfuck him to death during mating season. They have had a long history on the silver screen, hence why this column exists. Note I am only going to be doing movies with ape or monkey actors; none of this Ed or Congo shit where they’re either mechanical monstrosities or people in suits. I call the shameful phenomenon “apeface”. Those thespians deserve employment opportunities in the film industry just as we do! Take, for instance, Dunston Checks In, a tour de force showcase of Sam the orangutan as Dunston who indeed checks in. If it was all hotel shenanigans involving just the orangutan the movie might be good, but damn orangutan labor laws prevent Sam (often referred to as the Mike Myers of great apes) from receiving the majority of the screentime. Instead we’re suppose to give a shit about, in no particular order: Jason Alexander, his shitty kids, the hotel they squat in’s star rating, NAFTA and a dog named after Neil Armstrong. Wes Anderson watched this, said “yeah, I’m doing the exact opposite of everything” and made The Grand Budapest Hotel. So at least Dunston Checks In has that going for it.


Originally the marketing department went with a more risque poster, but an executive decreed “we’re not selling a movie with ape cock. We learned our lesson from The Pillow Book!”.

The first shot in Dunston Checks In is an overhead of a desk bell. It’s a rather daring Stanley Kubrick homage (cf. The breasts in A Clockwork Orange) for a movie about an orangutan fucking up a hotel. But then I thought about it. Is not Dunston a great ape version of Alex DeLarge? Then within the first montage I realized Dexter‘s opening ripped off this picture wholesale. Is this like Peeping Tom or George Meyer’s old Army Man magazine, where something sparsely seen has an outsized influence on its contemporaries? Probably not, but baseless speculation is much more entertaining than the meat of the film. (Room 238: A Documentary of Dunston Checks In Theorizing coming to NetFlix Instant.) Jason Alexander plays a man in a bad piece who’s manager of the Majestic Hotel in New York City, 12 years after the great C.H.U.D. invasion. He’s got two male children, widowed for unknown reasons (I think an implied background of the wife dying in an ape attack would deepen the antagonism in the Jason Alexander/Dunston relationship) and they all live in the hotel. I’m not an expert on hotel management, but do hotel staff and their families typically live in the hotel itself? That kinda seems like indentured servitude. It also seems like something that makes more sense decades ago, something plaguing Dunston Checks In in general. But it doesn’t take much reaching to regard Alexander and his kids as a “you’ve always been here” Shining situation. There’s no indication the kids go to school and until the very end the family never even leaves the confines of the hotel. So what if Jason Alexander grounds them? Where the fuck are they gonna go, wait outside for Scatman Crouthers to show up and get gored by Dunston and his ax?


Contrary to the above, Dunston Checks In takes place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s a blink and you miss it, but a Chitauri skewers Jason Alexander’s hairpiece in one scene in the Avengers.

The hotel’s owner, the slummin’ slummin’ slummin’ Faye Dunaway, is obsessed with getting the mythical sixth star for the hotel and will cancel promised vacations and order firings to achieve it. Most of the characters are as caricatured as Marx Brothers characters, the difference lying in the fact that the Marxes were comedic geniuses and Dunston Checks In was written by the guy responsible for the 9/11 Disney Channel Original Movie Tiger Cruise and a Harry Hamlin/Graham Greene creep-off. People like the fat dandy played by the gay super from Seinfeld and Rupert Everett’s Rudyard Kipling jewel thief are neither engaging nor amusing; they exist to fill stock roles. Faye Dunaway is particularly atrocious. But you don’t give a shit about the humans, you give an apeshit about Dunston. Well, Dunston serves as Rupert Everett’s partner in the riches theft operation. Apparently they worked in the circus industry until the realization that their skills could transition into lucrative areas. Dunston’s brother Samson was in the racket too until Rupert Everett killed him. There’s a missed opportunity for a gritty prequel called Samson Checks Out. Michael Mann would be perfect for it.


More preposterous than an orangutan wreaking havoc in a hotel.

Most of the shenanigans revolve around the little kid seeing Dunston and being unable to convince anyone else he’s around. For a fucking orangutan, Dunston’s adept at catching idiots blissfully unaware. In one sequence that suggests the screenwriters belong on a registry of some sort, our hero replaces a masseuse and sexually assaults a woman, though she enjoyed it so whatever (also known as The Clinton Doctrine). It is a testament to Sam’s professionalism that he doesn’t rip all sorts of sinew and gristle from the elderly actress’ back. There’s another rough gag in which Jason Alexander lets his youngest share his bed, and unbeknownst to him it’s actually Dunston. I haven’t done a side by side lately, but I imagine a young human boy (the same annoying shit from the The Santa Clause chillogy) and an orangutan have several significant differences that can surmount any number of sleeping pills/whiskey sours. These people deserve to have their valuables stolen. These jokes (terming them jokes constitutes my yearly charitable donation, in fact) are so old they could’ve voted for Calvin Coolidge, and no one pulls off the gags well enough for the tired recycling to be justified.


Rupert Everett engineered the Chilean mine collapse. You know, that one from a few years ago. That we cared about.

Upon realizing what movie he’s in, Jason Alexander commits to apprehending the ape, although he’s got the good sense to hire a professional to do it for him. Unfortunately, he has the bad sense to hire a mid-90s Paul Reubens. Pee Wee, I hope cumming all over the back of a porno theatre chair was worth it. Of the several dozen terrible things about Dunston Checks In, Paul Reubens may be the worst, putting in a I don’t even know what the fuck performance as sort of a Kraven the Hunter for flipper babies. At one point he talks about kids getting orangutans as gifts and flushing them down the toilet when they get too big, on more than one occasion he mentions seeing a turtle so big it was a Volkswagen with a tail… it’s too much. Subtlety is less than necessary in such a movie for stupid children, yet every time Reubens is on screen it’s just fucking death. Letting him occupy the frame for minutes at a time is how something 88 minutes long can feel like it’s 350 (half-expected a “directed by Andrei Tarovsky” tag at the end). Director Ken Kwapis (his name is easily the funniest thing about Dunston Checks In) piles caricature upon caricature of human activity to collide at the most important event no viewer could possibly give a shit about, the Majestic’s famed Crystal Ball. (They came up with the name by brainstorming “you know, call it something like Crystal Ball. I mean, not that, that’s stupid, we’ll change it, but something like that. We’ll come back and think of a better name later”.) The old adage “never let an orangutan attend a ball, bazaar, box social, luncheon or hootenanny” holds true as things get fucked up in short order. Jason Alexander’s given pretty much nothing to do in this movie, and there are scant opportunities for him to even approach Costanza levels of irritation, which one might expect to occur in a product in which he is an uptight hotel manager who has to balance all of his existing logistical concerns with tracking down an orangutan. With each indignity and complication I was expecting for it to build to some fantastic George rage, yet only once does Jason Alexander do the patented Seinfeld yelling. What I wouldn’t have given for a single “George is getting upset!!!”…


The stigmata element comes out of NOWHERE.

I mean, Jason Alexander’s got reason to fear his boss. After all, “she once kicked Big Bird in the nuts”, a line that raises more questions than answers, like does Big Bird exist as an independent entity in this universe, does Big Bird actually have testicles, etc. I think shelving the Crystal Ball bullshit and instead exploring the strange world of orangutans flushed down the toilet, Greg the Bunny-esque Sesame Street realism and circus acts cum master criminals (the latter being something I thought only existed in the Marvel Universe) would’ve made this piece of shit much more tolerable. Otherwise you’ve got horseshit like over an hour of abuse and disregard boiling over with Jason Alexander pieing Faye Dunaway in the face (an actual pie, not… I don’t even have to finish that, you’re already vomiting). He wasn’t a good choice for the role. You need a perpetual doormat, like noted spree killer Matthew Broderick, or a constant font of exasperation, aka Larry Miller. If ever a Terminator gets sent back in time to kill Larry David, Jason Alexander is fucking jumping in front of those bullets. If not for George Louis Costanza, he’d be taking belts of Jack, blabbering to his piece while going over the script to Dunston Checks In 3: Oh Fuck He’s Got A Gun.


The less said about the subplot of an ape impersonating a Vietnamese doctor, the better.

It’s almost amusing to the extent that Dunston Checks In tries to be a movie with characters and stakes when everyone should just admit it’s a delivery system for ape hijinks. No one saw Three Stooges shorts for plot, so why not dispense with the pretense and create as thin a linking device for gags as possible? No one cares that the kid’s strange thought patterns reminds Costanza of his dead wife (though combined with the sleeping in the same bed scene some alarms should go off at SVU) nor does the Job-esque struggle of Glenn Shadix, foppish hotel reviewer and prank/abuse magnet endear. Horrible things happen to him, then more horrible things, and finally horrible things happen to him as the final gag. The movie did make me realize that for animals, the circus and the zoo are the equivalent of foster care for children, so presumably Dunston was gonna get raped in the butt if not for Jason Alexander’s new job at the hotel chain’s Bali branch allowing great apes free rein to drop coconuts on visitors’ heads and give Glenn Shadix a cerebral hemorrhage. I mean, fuck it! The South Pacific: anything goes, be it ladyboys, marriages to 12 year olds, impish tans of the orangu variety. Places that aren’t here are weird, like how in India cows have a higher yearly salary than women.


His piss actually makes for some not bad champagne. You gotta chill it first, though.

Dunston Checks In didn’t earn its happy ending, and Faye Dunaway’s not so much a villain as she is a woman who doesn’t want fucking orangutans sexually assaulting guests at her hotel. If I were her I’d care more about a good review than Jason Alexander’s shitty kids too. The youngest is basically a prank happy street urchin who says ridiculous shit like a monkey made the mess and the Israelis had something to do with 9/11 and the oldest’s only bit of characterization is he uses the hotel’s security system to spy on women. At one point he tells his brother “if anything happens to me, there’s a box of magazines under my bed; get rid of them, okay?”, which suggests the hypothetical Dunston Checks In 2 could be subtitled The Rise of Ted Bundy. (I wonder how well the man in an arm sling, trying to carry a load of books to his car ruse would work in Bali.) The humor smacks of adults who hate working on children’s movies trying to add jokes only adults will get (like a man thinking Paul Reubens is under the table to look at his wife’s pussy!) and creating something aimed at nobody. I only give credit for the finished feature not having a “spank the monkey” gag, though I admit I may have missed it while filling my glass with some more $3 Merlot.


The NYPD killed most of these guys for “resisting arrest”.

If there’s one silver lining to this cloud of battery acid and radioactive feces, it’s Sam in his first and only starring role. Born in 1989 and living to the age of 21, Sam’s sort of the James Dean of ape actors. I don’t know how it is you get animals to act (I assume it involves bananas and a cut of the gross or maybe the ground floor of home video percentage if they really have their shit together), but the trainers do a fantastic job. Whoever convinced Sam not to tear that stupid hairpiece off Jason Alexander’s head should work with similarly strong, volatile screen presences like Mickey Rourke. Dunston Checks In gives a fair number of “he thinks he’s people” moments for Sam to own, like a backstory of tobacco addiction, watching Planet of the Apes on television, multiple costumes, getting fucked up on champagne, a filmmaker’s critical misunderstanding that a frisbee does not operate like a boomerang, hanging on a chandelier (okay, maybe that’s more of a “he thinks he’s Mickey Rourke” moment), and he easily outdoes Faye Dunaway (and everyone else for that matter). It drags when the ape has to share scenes with the little kid, because the latter is a shrill, irritating screen presence. It would’ve forced a genre-changing third act, but I kept hoping Dunston would accidentally kill the brat whilst playing, like in Frankenstein. Fuck it, give me a 20 minute courtroom scene of Sam Waterston arguing that Dunston did know what he was doing and the defense’s diminished capacity argument being a crock of shit. If anyone could see through that fucker’s mugging, it’s Jack McCoy. The one thing I didn’t care for was the film sweetened the soundtrack by bringing in the likes of Frank Welker to record additional orangutan sounds. Just put Sam in a voiceover booth for a few hours! He doesn’t have a SAG card, ergo the production can do whatever they want with him. He could’ve become craft services!


More or less embarrassing than Bob Patterson?

This entire script was likely reverse engineered from the “I’ve got a monkey in my hotel” line of dialogue, and the fact that a movie can be encapsulated in 2 seconds is rarely a good sign. I don’t recommend you watch Dunston Checks In under any circumstances, as despite the superb performance by Sam the orangutan (he got robbed at the Primate Oscars; even worse was the snub on the In Memoriam roll in 2011) it’s equal parts a cloying slog and a mindnumbing irritant. The best comparison I can make is those stories you hear about spiders crawling into someone’s ear and laying hundreds of eggs. Imagine how you’d feel when all those eggs hatched in your head, and imagine that feeling lasting 88 minutes and you have a rough equivalent of the Dunston Checks In experience. And listen, Ken Kwapis, you fucking asshole director: Dunston is an orangutan, the Homidae family (aka great apes). The characters routinely refer to him as a gorilla and a monkey when he is neither. The characters are already total blithering idiots, at least let them refer to the fucking titular star correctly more than never.

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