Believability is not always a problem when it comes to comedy – a couple dashes of wackiness never killed anyone per se. But Howard Hawks’ Monkey Business (1952) makes the case that maybe too much mania can be a bad thing if there’s too much of it, especially when the comedowns are just as prolific, maybe even more so, as the comeups.
Monkey Business stars Cary Grant as Barnaby Fulton, a research chemist in the process of perfecting a concoction he’s tentatively dubbing an elixir of youth. Though still in the experimental stages, with chimpanzees time and time again acting as the guinea pigs, the aftereffects of the potion entail that its users be rejuvenated, that they become as healthy as they were during their college days.
Since the consequences have proven to be beneficial thus far – almost all the chimps have seen improvements in their overarching health – Fulton’s eagerness eventually overtakes his better judgment and he takes some of the ether himself, washing it down with cooler water.
Initially, he experiences exactly what he expects. His vision reverts back to its original 20/20, and his once stiff joints suddenly loosen and his energy restores. But slowly but surely does his demeanor change. After a while, Fulton essentially becomes a teenager, acting like a high school doof who shaves off most of his hair and who spends the day with his sexy 20-something secretary (Marilyn Monroe).
This, of course, irks his wife Edwina (Ginger Rogers), with irritations teeming even after it’s understood that the plentiful bad behavior was the fault of the mixture, not the man. But that doesn’t stop Fulton for trying out his confection once more, with Edwina joining in on the fun, too.
The problem with Monkey Business, though, lies solely in the fact that it’s at its most entertaining when the Fultons are saddled with the ramifications of the elixir at the front and center of the film. Moments when Mr. and Mrs. Fulton are scurrying about, acting like foolish youths with an affinity for troublemaking, are the movie’s finest and most undeniably funny. Grant and Rogers, and also supporting actress Monroe, all keep masterful comedic timing in pocket which help animate the screenplay (written by Harry Segall, Ben Hecht, Charles Lederer, and I.A.L. Diamond) joyously.
But when those sequences fade and relative earnestness takes over, we’re left uninterested – the highs are so high that the momentary lows jarringly halt the momentum preceding it. And in effect is Monkey Business a strikingly uneven comedy. Sometimes it’s refreshingly screwball and sometimes it’s mannered, but the disparate subgenres touched upon never mesh quite as easily as director Hawks (Bringing Up Baby, His Girl Friday) would hope.
It’s mostly throwaway, though Grant, Rogers, and Monroe are so good that Monkey Business does warrant a watch simply to see them at their comedic best. But all have been in better movies before: look in the direction of Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), The Major and the Minor (1942), and How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) to see these respective actors in films which do their talents justice. C+