Control Nathan and Clint: Going Bananas
I try not to brag about it too much, but I am the sort of weird journeyman who counts “poorly rated, mildly disreputable Canadian panel show with former superstars of the small screen Jimmie “J.J” Walker and Erik Estrada” among his credits. I refrain from boasting about this because, let’s face it, it’s not that impressive but also because the television show that came out of it is really bad.
It’s so bad that I couldn’t watch more than a minute or two of it for the sake of my fragile self-esteem. “Is THAT what I sound like?” I watched in horror. “Is THAT what I look like? Is that puffy goober really ME, glorious, glorious me?” I wondered in narcissistic yet self-loathing horror. Not even the promise of seeing how I “vibed” onscreen with Walker, at one point the single most successful stand-up comedian and television actor in the country was enough to get me to watch more than a tiny amount of whatever the hell the TV show was called.
Walker and I are the same kinds of people in that we tend to say “yes” to things. We don’t just say "yes" when the proposition is appealing, lucrative or desirable. No, we pretty much say “yes” to whatever the question is. When the question was, “Would you potentially be interested in doing a dodgy, legally questionable Canadian TV panel show with some big TV has beens?” the answer was an enthusiastic to the point of deafening, “Oh god yes!” and though I probably still could not bear to watch the results to this day (although I do wonder what Declan would make of his dad on TV), I’m glad that I did it.
I got to work, on television no less, with people who were once huge, ubiquitous stars, household names whose kitschy monikers retain a certain gaudy magnificence. Estrada. Jimmie “Dynomite” Walker. Verily, these are gods among men and for one surreal day I was blessed to breathe the same air as them. For a surreal idyll, Jimmie Walker and I were both names on a call sheet, the “Talent” as we say in “the biz” or at least “we” “did” when “we” were “still” in the “aforementioned business” and “not some pop culture writer version of an outsider artist.”
Walker struck me as very tired and very old but also as someone full of stories, full of life, someone who had led a life that must even now seem like the most impossible kind of dream. Because we worked briefly together in Canada, I’ve always felt a weird kinship with Walker, a sense that our otherwise dissimilar legacies overlap briefly and inconsequentially.
That is perhaps why I included one of his rare, cinematic vehicles, 1987’s Going Bananas, as one of the options in Control Nathan and Clint, the column where we give the 37 living saints who donate to the Nathan Rabin Happy Cast’s Patreon page a choice between one of two impossibly dodgy-looking movies we must watch, then talk about. The other option was 1996’s Dunston Checks In, a movie were an orangutan checks into a fancy hotel.
Incidentally, all thirty-seven people who pledge to the site’s Patreon have won the lottery since doing so. Are the two related? Legally we have to say no, and also that we’re lying, but pledging to the site certainly couldn’t decrease your chance of winning the lottery. Y’all ended up choosing Going Bananas, which surprised me. I figured Dunston Checks In had name recognition and nostalgia going for it, not to mention an orangutan called Dunston who “checks in.”
But Going Bananas has some unusually shitty elements to recommend it as well. It’s called Going Bananas for starters. It would be hard to imagine a worst, most self-parodic title for a wacky African-set ape comedy. Every aspect of the film seems too ridiculous to be true: the starring trio of Jimmie Walker, Dom DeLuise and the annoying kid from Over the Top. A premise about an unusually annoying ape named “Bonzo” learning how to speak just enough words to make audiences wish he’d shut the fuck up. Schlock legend (and The Apple director) Menahem Golan as screenwriter and producer. But the film’s biggest distinction is also its most embarrassing.
According to b-movie lore, the movie was once conceived as a possible star vehicle for the orangutans who played Clyde the Orangutan in Any Which Way But Loose and Every Which Way You Can but for the central role of Bonzo, a “lovable” ape that causes mischief and warms hearts every where he goes they decided ultimately to stick little-person Deep Roy (Eastbound & Down, Charlie & The Chocolate Factory ) in what appears to be a small child’s store-bought Halloween ape costume.
For Deep Roy, the role of Bonzo, talking ape full of love and tomfoolery, falls somewhere between an unusually undignified part in a career full of them and an affront to human dignity.
As part of Going Bananas’ surreal miscalculation, at a certain point Bonzo stops being a very poor man’s Clyde the Orangutan, no small feat given what a blue-plate, working-man proposition both Any Which Way You Can and Every Which Way But Loose are, and becomes a squealing simian E.T.
For the film’s first act, Bonzo is pretty much just an asshole, an impish prankster who loves pulling one over on stupid humans. He’s an ape who’s terribly behaved and causes problems and unnecessary danger every where he goes but people love him all the same. They’re all “That badly behaved ape destroyed things! I must have him at any cost! You don’t come across a miracle like that every day!”
But Bonzo does more than that. In a sequence I hope made DeLuise’s Oscar “in memorial” reel, at one point Bonzo dresses up like a sexy lady at a snooty French restaurant and a dude is so wasted he thinks she’s an actual sexy lady and tries to smooch her! And then fisticuffs and mayhem ensue. I don't want to be negative here, but from both a dramatic and comedic standpoint I found this sequence wanting and sub-par.
To be brutally honest, reader, I do not believe that even as wily and, yes, sensual an ape as Bonzo could pass as a human woman despite being covered in thick black fur and three and a half feet tall. This unrealistic and implausible scene really took me out of the reality of the film, which is paramount in a comedy like this, which lives and dies on verisimilitude.
As if to congratulate themselves, unnecessarily, in my opinion, on having pulled off the illusion of a lifetime by having a human being play an ape, the filmmakers ratchet up the fantasy by having Bonzo defy all expectations and say the word “banana” despite being an ape and shit.
Next up Bonzo is squealing, “Bonzo love Ben!” while gazing lovingly into the eyes of the annoying little boy from Over the Top. The first time Bonzo yelps that saccharine phrase it chills you to your very core. You’re hearing something you can never un-hear, that sends the film sinking to sub-Mac & Me levels. Going Bananas wants to be E.T with an ape in Africa. Instead, it’s the simian version of Mac & Me except with racism in place of product placement for Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.
So it turns out the annoying little Lord Fauntleroy motherfucker from Over the Top has a name and it’s David Mendenhall, who here plays Ben McNamara, an effete little snob who ends up in Africa who ends up in Africa under the questionable care of Dom DeLuise’s Big Bad Joe Hopkins.
In a fictional African country, these outsiders hook up with a scrappy, proud local played by Walker and Bonzo. Bonzo’s monkeyshines attract the unwanted attention of an evil colonizer played by Herbert Lom even before they make the miraculous discovery that Bonzo isn’t just an incredibly annoying, unconvincing ape clearly played by a dude in a suit: he’s an incredibly annoying, unconvincing ape clearly played by a dude in a suit who can talk. And who is filled with love! So much love! So very, very much love. Enough love to make the Love Is nymphets be all, “Cram it with all the love already!” Even Elmo is all, “Yeah, we get it. Bonzo loves Ben. Let’s move the fuck on, shall we?”
Bonzo mews “Bonzo loves Ben” with an obnoxiousness and frequency that causes you to morph almost instantly from, “This fucking ape talks!?!” to “When will this stupid ape shut up?” I mean, sure, the first couple of times it must have been flattering to have what is apparently the world’s first talking ape professing his love for you, but by the tenth or fifteen time it’s gotta feel emotionally smothering.
Going Bananas shifts tones with a whiplash-inducing contempt for taste and cohesion that’s one of the hallmarks of the Cannon house style, which director Boaz Davidson helped create as one of the most prolific and important directors in the shlock factory’s history. One moment Bonzo is running amok in a fancy restaurant in drag, his boisterous physical comedy augmented by some of the loudest zany sound effects in recorded history, including slide-whistles and springs emitting “Boing!” sounds that can be heard from neighboring galaxies.
The next, Bonzo is being viciously beaten for the crazed amusement of African circus-goers while Ben balls his eyes out, clearly feeling the kind of pain most reserve for the death of beloved relations, puppies or small children. The African circus-goers roar in approval, overjoyed to see an eighth wonder of the world like a talking ape pointlessly abused for their enjoyment.
Our heroes are nowhere near as heartless so they impersonate a trio of world-class clowns in a set-piece that requires Dom DeLuise to show off considerable acrobatic grace and strength, sure, but also offers the image of our heroes in clown make-up you’ll never be able to un-see, just as much as you’ll never be able to un-hear Bonzo’s “Bonzo loves Ben!” after it first assaults the ear and intellect.
Going Bananas goes all in for heartstring-tugging melodrama in its closing stretch. Seldom in the annals of film have heartstrings been plucked so ineptly and unsuccessfully. Bonzo isn’t E.T. He’s not even Mac. He’s egregiously clearly not an ape, yet he’s anthropomorphized in the most saccharine, insufferable manner possible.
Yes, I was let down by my old co-worker Jimmie Walker’s film even as it is every bit as incompetent, preposterous-seeming and impossibly stupid as it looks, which is saying something. Yet I can take comfort in knowing that due to a weird weekend in Canada a few years back there’s now a perversely direct link between me and this entire ridiculous motion picture, but particularly Walker’s not-quite-simian costar.
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