The third of acclaimed monologist Spalding Gray's performance works to be filmed (after SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA and "SPALDING GRAY: TERRORS OF PLEASURE," shown as an HBO comedy special), MONSTER IN A BOX shows Gray reaching a point of diminishing returns as an artist, though he's lost nothing
as an entertainer.
The monster of the title is a 1900-page manuscript of a novel by Gray that is two years overdue at the publisher. The monologue relates what happened during those two years and becomes a study in creative procrastination. Gray recounts how, after obtaining the book contract, he sequestered himself
at a writer's colony to get down to work, only to find himself soon going stir crazy. Salvation comes in the form of a call from Los Angeles to be artist-in-residence at a theater and produce a work of performance art consisting of onstage interviews with LA citizens who have no connection with
the film business.
Along the way he has other memorable experiences: taking meetings with high-powered Hollywood agents eager to represent him following the success of SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA; living through his first West Coast earthquake; coping with a bout of AIDS paranoia; undergoing Freudian therapy; touring
Russia with an odd cadre of stars including Daryl Hannah, Richard Gere and Carrie Fisher; going on a research mission to Nicaragua on behalf of Columbia Pictures for a proposed screenplay; and then going back to New York for a disastrous acting outing in a revival of Our Town. It ends with Gray's
decision to take a vacation, connecting with his long-gestating novel about a man who is unable to take a vacation.
There was a time when well-turned talk was a major attraction at the movies, when screenplays by the likes of Ben Hecht, Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges occasionally made films more enjoyable to listen to than to watch. Now, it seems, talk movies have become a genre unto themselves, as witness
diverse offerings from MY DINNER WITH ANDRE, to Oliver Stone's and Eric Bogosian's TALK RADIO, to Robert Altman's SECRET HONOR, to Richard Pryor's performance films, to Errol Morris's talking-head documentaries and Gray's own filmed monologues. While it's still possible, though increasingly
improbable, that Hollywood will rediscover how to put smart talk and smart moviemaking back together, in the meantime worse things could happen than to have Gray on the scene every couple of years with his slightly bent reports on life in the rich-and-famous lane.
While a first-rank raconteur, however, Gray is not a great artist. Though he tries, he is unable to find any compelling parallels between the progress of his novel and the progress of his life. Writing the novel seems to be about Gray's attempts to resolve his relationship with his mother.
However, Gray proves to be the least interesting character in his own life, a routinely neurotic New York gadfly and self-described "Freudianexistentialist" who seems most alive only when he is observing others. Though the determined emptiness of pop culture forms the common thread of Gray's
anecdotes here (as well as in SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA), he all but admits to being hard pressed to find anything to say about it that hasn't been said before, if not better.
Still, Gray's ability to acknowledge his own limitations may be what is most engaging about him. SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA was elevated by the scope of its subject. Lacking a similarly weighty subject, MONSTER IN A BOX would have been a far more tedious film if Gray had forced scope upon it. By
comparison, MONSTER IN A BOX is a chat where SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA was an ode. But even a good chat is hard to find in today's increasingly arid cultural environment. Films like MONSTER IN A BOX function almost as a form of intellectual titillation, teasing their audiences with the lost art of
simple, intelligent, articulate conversation.
One can only wish Gray the best on his vacation--and hope he takes the trouble to find us and tell us all about it when he gets back. (Adult themes.)
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- Released: 1992
- Rating: PG-13
- Review: The third of acclaimed monologist Spalding Gray's performance works to be filmed (after SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA and "SPALDING GRAY: TERRORS OF PLEASURE," shown as an HBO comedy special), MONSTER IN A BOX shows Gray reaching a point of diminishing returns as a… (more)