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June 13, 2011

Span and Sain and Pray for Rain

The Monkey in the Room

by Emma Span

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While generally an animal lover, I’ve never been a fan of chimps. Sure, they’re a bit creepy—nothing should look that human without actually being human—but that’s not really why. I think I’ve figured it out: No movie that prominently features a chimpanzee, or an orangutan, has ever been good. Gorillas and/or giant ape-type creatures: Sure. See King Kong. Monkeys? Sometimes—that little Nazi spy-monkey from Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark, or even the not-exactly-good-but-memorably-freaky Monkeyshines. But chimps or orangutans? No.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. I bring this up because weird movies are something of a hobby of mine—on Tuesdays, some of my friends and I have a regular Bad Movie Night, where we watch stuff like Troll 2 or Heartbeeps or Night of the Lepus or Death Bed: The Bed That Eats or Birdemic: Shock and Terror—and weird baseball movies are, of course, a passion. There’s a chapter in my book about this, which you can read here; aside from explaining why I hate The Natural, it covers Safe at Home and Night Game and Rhubarb The Millionaire Tomcat. All memorable in their own ways.

One that I hadn’t seen when I wrote that is Ed, a movie that’s not out on DVD but just started streaming on Netflix this month.

Let’s not drag out the suspense: Ed is exactly as good as you’d expect a 1996 movie starring Matt LeBlanc and a baseball-playing chimpanzee to be. Bill Couturié directed it, and it remains his only feature-length fiction film. LeBlanc, playing a cardboard-cutout character whose only discernable character traits are a kind of vague niceness and a reluctance to have his personal property destroyed by a chimpanzee, is a farm boy who has never played baseball at any level, but for some reason decides to try out for The Rockets.

We never find out exactly what kind of team the Rockets are—Independent League? They’re certainly run like an Independent League team, what with the way they (Spoiler alert!) eventually trot out a chimp to play third base. But at the end, Tommy Lasorda shows up, as himself, and says, “I want this guy in Los Angeles by the end of next week!” So… maybe they’re a farm team? But we never hear anything else about that. Also, while the movie’s weird awfulness causes time to expand and contract and fold in on itself in ways that make it hard to be certain of anything, “cut day” seems to come just a few days before “the big game” (no playoff race or game is ever mentioned prior to LeBlanc suddenly saying, “Today is the big game!”). But I seem to be getting ahead of myself again.

You know how Bull Durham and Major League manage to have a bunch of distinctive, well-developed characters on their respective baseball teams, even the ones with relatively little screen time? Well, in Ed… let’s see. One guy is very friendly—a pre-Jesus Jim Caviezel—and one guy is kind of rude; that actor never got famous. And one guy is Hispanic. That’s all I got.

LeBlanc “plays” Jack “Deuce” Cooper, allowing another character to say, “The way you’ve been pitching, the only thing you’ll ever have in common with the Hall of Fame is your name!” His love interest is a pretty single-mother waitress who shares Cooper’s fuzzy niceness. I set odds on whether the father of her child would turn out to have died or abandoned them, but we never found out.

The immature son of the team’s owner is in charge—we can tell right away he’s the bad guy because of his awful toupee (ahem)—and he brings in, “from Mickey Mantle’s estate,” our title character: Ed. Note that Mantle died in 1995, so his corpse was barely cold before he was being exploited in horribly miscalculated chimp movies.

There were times when it was hard to tell, but I think there wasn’t much real chimp in Ed—there was, instead, a skin-crawling chimp outfit. And though I’ve made my feelings on chimp movies clear, they usually have the ability to watch a rather incredible and powerful animal up close; the chimp costume neatly eliminates even that meager reward. In the credits, Ed is listed as being played by two people. The first is Jay Caputo, who has a legitimately impressive resume as a stunt man and also played “Salamander Man” and “Bat Thing” on The X-Files, as well as “1st Ape Teenager” and “2nd Ape Soldier” in the 2001 Planet of the Apes remake, for which he was presumably well prepared. The second is Denise Cheshire, best known as the woman who gets eaten while skinny-dipping at the beginning of Jaws.

Anyway, Matt LeBlanc gets assigned to pick Ed up and then to live with him, which seems like a bit much even for the minors. Mostly what Ed does is make a big deal about using LeBlanc’s toilet, watch TV (including a quick clip of the monkey from Friends, which is as close as this movie is capable of coming to a knowing in-joke), and break a nice light fixture. We’re clearly meant to be charmed, though I personally found the repeated scenes of the large primate sneaking into bed with an initially repulsed but eventually more pliant LeBlanc to be increasingly uncomfortable.

Eventually, Ed turns out to be an incredible athlete and ballplayer—I guess somehow because Mickey Mantle owned him? Whatever, if the movie doesn’t care, why should I?—making amazing jumping, flipping catches and throwing so hard that he leaves a smoking hole in a fielder’s glove. By far the movie’s lowest, saddest moment comes when the manager decides to put Ed in at third base after his regular guy is knocked out. The opposing manager, of course, protests. A player claims, “There exists no rule that requires a player to be of homosapien origin!” “Homo-what?” says the opposing manager, while the viewing audience cringes. But it gets much worse. “That monkey does not play!” says the opposing manager. “Look, they let all kinds of people play this game…” “Oh, that’s big of you Greg,” says the ump, who is African-American, and then proceeds—in apparent response—to put Ed in the game, and eject the objecting manager. “Baseball is America’s game,” he goes on to announce to crowd, “regardless of race, creed, color, species…”

I’m not sure what’s worse, that a man who objects to having a chimpanzee inserted into a professional baseball game is portrayed as racist, or that they try to make a throwaway scene about a chimp’s right to play ball equivalent to the decades-long struggle to integrate baseball, or that they put all this in the mouth of one of the movie’s few black actors. This is done subtly enough that few children watching will pick it up—and it’s about the only thing in the movie that comes within a mile of “subtle.” My friend dubbed the scene the worst thing we’d ever seen on Bad Movie Night, and while I’m not sure I agree, because just last week we saw a deformed amputated tumor of a conjoined-twin-monster hump the body of a woman it had just killed, it is definitely up there.

Another weird semi-subplot in the movie is that even though he has this great arm and hits 114 mph on the radar gun (…sure), Matt LeBlanc isn’t a very good pitcher once he gets into games. They never really explain if this is because he’s nervous or no one ever taught him how to pitch, though you’d think that might be important. But fine, so Ed comes in and immediately LeBlanc starts winning while Ed makes all these crazy hot-dog flip plays at third base. Really, though, that wouldn’t help all the homers, not to mention anything hit toward first. LeBlanc’s record improves, but I’m guessing his defense-independent pitching stats must still be pretty damn terrible.

The second-lowest moment in the movie comes when LeBlanc goes out and gets drunk and then tries to drive home, only he’s too drunk even to open the truck door and collapses next to it. This is basically a kids’ movie, but this is treated as amusing slapstick instead of a terribly sad and extremely criminal moment of crisis. And then Ed takes the keys, drags him into the car, and proceeds to speed like crazy all over town. Look, I’m no prude, but even Miguel Cabrera finds that pretty irresponsible.

Ed sometimes wears a Yankees hat. Did the Yankees agree to this? Did they get paid? If not, is it too late for the team to sue everyone involved?

I feel terrible for the real actors mired in this cesspool: the manager, “Chubb” (…) played by Jack Warden, and his assistant coach, played by Bill Cobbs. Cobbs has more than 140 credits, including The Hudsucker Proxy and The Color of Money. Warden was in fucking Twelve Angry Men. It hurts to see him here, gamely trying to bounce emotions off the smooth, unreflective vortex that is Matt LeBlanc. That both men retain most of their dignity is a true testament to their professionalism, and I hope they used the money for something nice.

At this point, you may notice that the movie is past the halfway point and yet no real plot has emerged. They save that for the last 10 minutes, when Ed gets sold to another team, and Matt LeBlanc’s love interest pressures him into “rescuing” Ed, even though nothing illegal has happened. Ed almost dies in the process because he spends a few minutes in a refrigerated frozen banana truck, and Matt LeBlanc leaves him in the hospital to pitch in “the big game.” He does kind of okay but not great, and then Ed and the girlfriend show up—and LeBlanc calls a timeout to go kiss the girl and wave at his pet monkey, which I’m guessing would get him a fastball in the ribs his next time up. I won’t spoil the ending for you because I already spoiled it previously. Tommy Lasorda truly has no shame at all.

Ed gave me a whole new appreciation for Rhubarb the Millionaire Tomcat, which is about a cat that inherits a baseball team, yet compared to Ed appears to be crafted with loving nuance.

So: Every Which Way But Loose. Bedtime For Bonzo. Project X. Going Ape! With Tony Danza. Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp. Dunston Checks In. The best movie I can think of that features prominent chimp/orangutan screen time is Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and that’s not exactly Truffaut. Do bad movies tend to feature chimps, or do chimps make a movie bad? That’s a question best left to the philosophers. Nevertheless, the link is real.

(My only hesitation regarding that statement is, do the things in 2001: A Space Odyssey count? I’m going with no: they’re fictional pre-humans, and more ape-like anyway. Also, the pet chimp in Sunset Boulevard is dead before the movie starts, so that’s out.)

 Googling “monkeys in movies” leads you to an alarmingly comprehensive list at monkeyconspiracy.com, but reading it will take your mental health down several notches, especially if you do so shortly after seeing Ed. I welcome counterexamples, but know that if you try to champion Every Which Way But Loose in this space I will do my level best to get you banned. 

Emma Span is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Emma's other articles. You can contact Emma by clicking here

Related Content:  Character,  The Who,  Movies

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