One of the biggest misconceptions about Chris Rock is that as a member of the Saturday Night Live cast he was underutilized. In fact, he just plain stunk on the show. Furthermore, Rock's SNL tenure was perfectly indicative of a career that could be summed up in three words: Bruh'man can't act.
In the interests of fairness, let's expound a bit on that statement and say that Chris Rock is a poor comedic actor, since his dramatic debut in the Mario Van Peebles crime caper New Jack City was plenty admirable. But Down to Earth? A joke it was--and not in a good way. Dogma? The man actually glanced at the camera during his monologues.
Which leaves us with Rock's two strengths--his standup comedy and his cartoon voiceovers, both of which he continues to perform with enough proficiency to maintain his iconic status. It's the latter of these that's on display in Osmosis Jones, an often hilarious and sometimes thoughtful mix of animation and live action, and the latest in a long line of Farrelly Brothers gross-fests that pulls almost mythically funny turns out of its cast. (Just try to find wittier performances by Woody Harrelson and Randy Quaid than in the Farrellys' underrated Kingpin.)
Co-produced and -directed by the Farrellys, Osmosis Jones is set mostly in the unlikely locale of the City of Frank--another name for the cholesterol- and sodium-laden body of zookeeper Frank Detorri (Bill Murray). In the amusing but plebeian live-action scenes, we see that Frank's poor hygiene and diet have sent his body sagging toward circus-peanut-filled squalor. It has also severely strained his relationship with his young daughter (Elena Franklin), who's well aware that her mother's death was a direct result of her poor eating habits. The coup de grâce for Frank comes when he stoops so low as to wrestle a zoo chimp for a filthy hardboiled egg. Ingesting that egg sets the more entertaining part of the movie in motion, as the action is then catapulted into the animated kingdom of Frank's innards, a living city populated by billions of single-celled creatures.
Osmosis Jones (voiced by Rock) is one of the white blood cells responsible for protecting Frank. Jones is in the doghouse after mistakenly setting off a cramp that destroys a section of the city and is described on FNN (the Frank Network News) as "the worst cramp since the great Tae-Bo incident." Turns out that dirty egg Frank swallowed contains a lethal, Ebola-like virus (Laurence Fishburne) that threatens to kill him by assaulting the hypothalamus gland of his brain. Jones senses that something is amiss, but because the initial symptoms of the virus's lethal attack disguise themselves as the common cold, most of the "city," including its self-centered mayor (William Shatner), disregards the warning signs and encourages Frank simply to swallow a cold pill. Still, that dosage of Drixenol (David Hyde Pierce)--or "Drix," as he prefers to be called--sides with Jones in his belief that there are more sinister happenings afoot in the world of Frank.
The animated sequences in Osmosis Jones are the best of their kind in the two years since The Iron Giant, with vivid colors enlivening the vast universe inside the human body. But rather than leave the kiddies to the pretty scenery, the Farrellys and writer Mark Hyman have provided adult viewers with one of the cleverest comic scripts of the year. From a brawl in a disco located in a zit to the Mayor of Frank's announcement of plans to ease the shortage of fat-cell housing by "constructing" a third chin, the movie's wit knows no bounds. So many low-key jokes float across the screen that a second viewing of the film ought to be mandatory. In one wonderful sequence where the main characters are walking through Cerebellum Hall, they pass a statue of the city's founder, a wriggling sperm. Later, an announcement of the Mayor of Frank's attendance at an upcoming chicken-wing festival is greeted by a round of cheers in the high-rise housing of the Love Handles District.
All of the voice talent--including R&B singer Brandy Norwood as Jones's love interest, and Ron Howard as mayoral hopeful Tom Colonic (just guess where he resides)--rises to the task of giving personality to the insightful dialogue. The mayor's schemes to undermine his electoral opponent threaten to send Frank to the morgue, and they provide Shatner with one scene-stealing one-liner after another. But Rock is working in another category altogether, displaying a gift for comic delivery that his fans haven't seen since his now legendary "Little Penny" skits for Nike. While the past strength of his comedy has been limited by an often uncreative use of profanity, his vocal performance as Jones--often with the throbbing beat of a hip-hop soundtrack in the background--should leave no doubt as to his talent. When Jones's partner Drix has experienced a sudden bout of low self-esteem, our hero reassures him. "I know sugar pills that have cured cancer. They just had to believe." It's a touching yet humorous ode to the placebo, and, coming from Rock's trademark whiny voice, it actually works.
But even more surprising than Rock's performance is the departure that Osmosis Jones takes from the usual Farrelly fare. As the brothers' other films (e.g., Dumb & Dumber, There's Something About Mary) have consisted almost entirely of slovenly and disgusting characters, the likes of which Frank would relate to perfectly, it's no small stretch for the pair to attempt to teach Frank (and the audience) that the body is a temple to be worshiped. Cleverly demonstrating the myriad repercussions of the lifestyle that has long been their characters' trademark (They are what you eat might be the movie's motto), the Farrellys almost seem to have awoken with a deep sense of guilt about the legions of children who stuck their tongues to frozen poles and fed their buddies laxatives after routine screenings of Dumb & Dumber. (That the Farrellys' forthcoming Shallow Hal has to do with a model-loving guy who unexpectedly falls for an obese woman even suggests that their current interest isn't in bodily humor so much as body politics.)
Osmosis Jones may be a kids' movie by definition. But especially since grown-ups have spent the better part of the summer starving for a studio movie that appeals to more than just a childish desire for explosions, we adults might be allowed to partake of this somewhat guilty pleasure as well. And at least until Rock's live-action skills improve (or until he releases a new standup special), we can be forgiven for taking his stronger performances where we can get them.
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