Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Naked Ape (1973)

          Based on a nonfiction book about the development of human behavior as compared to that of other primates, this wildly uneven pastiche uses animated vignettes, dream sequences, narrative scenes, and supposedly comedic sketches to illustrate the absurdity and beauty of the human experience. In particular, the movie is preoccupied with sexuality, which should come as no surprise seeing as how Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Films produced the picture. Yet the promise of naughty content is slightly misleading. Although both of the leading actors display their bodies and participate in sex scenes, the movie also gets heavily into war. Additionally, much of the sex stuff is conveyed via cartoons or dialogue, so The Naked Ape is a relatively serious-minded endeavor that simply contains a few discreetly filmed physical encounters. Alas, the picture’s half-hearted approach to sex is indicative of other problems. One gets the sense that writer-director Donald Driver wanted The Naked Ape to be about something important and meaningful. Because he failed to shape a distinctive aesthetic, however, he simply made a freeform mess reflecting hip counterculture attitudes—with nothing of substance behind the posturing.
          The movie opens in a silly way. Wearing a business suit, Lee (Johnny Crawford) walks through a museum exhibit looking at cases that contain life-sized figures representing the different stages of man’s evolution. Upon reaching the last case, which is empty, Lee strips off his closes and enters the case, thereby representing modern man. The camera then studies his body in detail while credits are superimposed over the images. This scene has a certain perversity to it because leading man Crawford initially found fame as a child actor on the 1958-1963 TV series The Rifleman. Publicity for The Naked Ape made a big fuss over the fact that this young man showed his rifle, as it were. Similarly, leading lady Victoria Principal, who plays Lee’s girlfriend, did a nude layout in Playboy to promote the movie—another indicator of the low intentions dragging the piece down.
          Even though it’s only 85 minutes, The Naked Ape feels much longer, since it’s episodic and uneven. One animated sequence about the evolution of clothes has Gilliam-esque style and wit, but most of the ’toons are tepid, and the live-action scenes aren’t much better. Occasionally, Driver simply runs out of gas, as when he burns several minutes on pointless footage of gymnasts giving an exhibition. While Crawford and Principal are both attractive specimens, neither contributes anything memorable in terms of performance. And although the behind-the-scenes participation of the great songwriter Jimmy Webb is noteworthy, since he’s only composed scores for a handful of films, he doesn’t excel here, either, though the music he contributes to a war montage is powerful.

The Naked Ape: LAME

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