Feb. 20, 2008

Monster in a Box (1992)
Grade: 57/100

Director: Nick Broomfield
Stars: Spalding Gray

What it's about. A one-man, one-set show starring Spalding Gray. Gray wrote the screenplay, which he delivers without notes while sitting at a desk in front of a live audience.

How others will see it. Most people won't have the patience for this movie. But it has great appeal to actors, and to those who love the theater.

How I felt about it. During his monologue, Gray refers to Hollywood executive excitement over his earlier monologue movie, Swimming to Cambodia. It is easy to understand studio interest in a one-man, one-set film series that can be made as often as the next monologue is written. Add minor sound and special effects, and you have a movie tailored for the Indie circuit that cost just a couple million to make.

It doesn't have to break box office records to turn a profit. It will eventually generate that just from its cable and satellite appearances. Which, I am sure, is where most people have seen Gray's monologues.

The nice thing about a one-man show is that Spalding Gray alone determines its quality. He wrote the screenplay, and delivers it. Whether you praise or impugn it, look no further than Gray. You can't blame the studio producers for this one.

It is the kind of film that could not have been made prior to Blockbuster and the widespread delivery of cable. Because there aren't enough art houses that would play it to make it interesting to studios. Monster in the Box has a very narrow audience. But that audience will cherish the film.

The formula is clear. Begin with a meaningful life experience, and expand around that to include other interesting (and hopefully related) life experiences. Gray begins with his 1,800 page book and returns to it from time to time. In between, we get the lowdown on his sessions with a shrink, his interviews with UFO abductees, his trips to Moscow and Nicaragua, his appearance in a Broadway revival of Our Town, and his struggles with writer's block.

We also get the idea he has the potential of becoming an alcoholic, since his dream in Russia was to sample countless varieties of Vodka.

It's all interesting, and although I have to admit that I fell asleep several times while viewing it, I'm sure that had more to do with a recent heavy meal than any difficulty in navigating Gray's vignette transitions.

Nonetheless, Gray strays too much. Compare his one-man show with that of Julia Sweeney in God Said, 'Ha!', where she stays closer to the main subject, that of her brother's terminal battle with cancer. She also finds true love, mocks her father's obsession with news radio, and ridicules Pat, her Saturday Night Live character. But she doesn't go off into the wilderness like Gray, whose Nicaraguan memories appear dominated by the pathos of an insane man he lived with.

That is the danger of self-written and delivered monologues. They are very personal. It is the World According to Gray. A kid on stage vomits, and it is a treasured moment of surrealism, instead of too much pizza and cola. Gray eventually committed suicide, like his mother before him, and one can see the roots of Gray's act in his monologues. The disturbed impresses him too much.