MouseHunt - Guilty Pleasure
Updated: Mar 9, 2021
Tell me something: what are your thoughts on black comedy? Out of all forms of entertainment and expression that I know of, this one feels equivalent to walking a tightrope. One wrong move and you could quickly leave a bad impression, no matter what your intentions may have been. I also came to understand that you need to pay super close attention to what's being discussed or shown as part of the joke for anything like that to work. The attention to detail is necessary to pull off a good round of humor, black or otherwise.
While this was what I started to catch on to lately as an adult, I got an interesting...ly complicated taste of that when I repetitively watched MouseHunt.
Starring Nathan Lane and Lee Evans as the Smuntz brothers, Ernie and Lars, they owned and operated a string factory that their father, Rudolf, ran when he was still alive. Unfortunately, despite Lars trying to honor his father's wish of never giving up or selling Smuntz String, Ernie, and, to a certain extent, Lars' wife, April, felt like the factory was on its last legs and contemplated selling it off. But then, after both brothers underwent unfortunate circumstances that put them in a hole, they both decided to settle in an old house their father purchased and intended to borrow money against so he can compensate his workers once upon a time. Once Lars and Ernie got settled there, they stumbled into two significant discoveries: one, the house their father found was built in 1876 by a famous architect named Charles Lyle LaRue, as they discovered from some blueprints they recovered from the attic. Once the public eye caught onto that as well, they ultimately found out that this house was the famous 'Missing LaRue' and that in today's market, once refurbished and restored, it could go for up to millions of dollars. But that's all just the first discovery they found. The second discovery was that they had a housemate: a mouse, who lived in that house for an extended period of time. Fearing that the mouse could tarnish whatever opportunities Lars and Ernie had to sell off the house and make a fortune out of it, they both engaged in an all-out war against the mouse, with each attempt to thwart it becoming more and more progressively challenging as they went along.
At first glance, this movie's plot seemed immensely complicated; it had lots of conversations about mortgage payments, house inheritances, putting it up for market, and renovating it for sale, something that the adults can easily enjoy more than the kids would. That's not to say the movie didn't have plenty of moments to get the kids excited with, too, though, especially with the slapstick among the Smuntz brothers or even the mouse himself.
Of course, let's talk about the levels of black comedy in this movie. How well does it hit its mark in capturing specific scenarios' general bleakness and applying them into a comedic mood? Well, the first thing the movie started with was Ernie and Lars carrying their father's casket down the stairs at a funeral. On their way down, Lars accidentally yanked off a handle from the casket, causing it to roll down the stairs, bump into a funeral car, and send Rudolf Smuntz's corpse flying, until finally, that corpse dropped straight into the sewers, becoming, as a bystander put it, 'halfway to the harbor.' I've heard of burying someone at sea, but this is ridiculous! But seriously, for a scene to start the movie with, that one really hit home what kind of movie it was we were about to see.
Another example I know was when the Mayor, who underwent a triple heart bypass before, ate out with his family at Ernie's restaurant, Chez Ernie. There, he unwittingly ate what happened to be a cockroach that snuck in through a box of cigars inherited by Ernie and that Ernie brought with him into the restaurant. Some of the exaggerations in this scene, like the reporters swarming all over the Mayor and his family like flies, or the children's activities around the time of, and after, his father having a heart attack, threw in just a hint of humor despite the scene in question becoming more dreadful. Not helping was how this all occurred on the eve of his supposed campaign re-election as the city mayor.
While I'm still on that subject, there was only one scene in the entire movie that I really don't like. And, for the record, when I say 'I really don't like it,' I mean that it rubbed me the wrong way rewatching it as an adult just like it did when I watched it regularly as a kid. And taking in the fact that I may not have known any better as a kid, this was no laughing matter.
What happened was, Lars and Ernie were walking down a long, dark hallway, and as they reached the door, out came a mother dragging her daughter behind her, who was screaming and crying for her cat. This was discomforting enough, but then we see that cat in the front lobby, who was probably one of the most adorable cats you would ever see. Then the pound operators took him into a gas chamber where they did...God knows what.
I have no idea what they're doing to the poor kitty inside that chamber. Are they gassing it to death? Are they decontaminating it? It's hard to tell. But still, what has that little girl or that little kitty ever done to have it come to this?
Sometimes, my gut told me that this cat must've been a stray that the girl spotted. Either that or she's probably better off under someone else's wings than she is under her own mother's.
Whatever the case may be, if we are supposed to take the visual imagery into account, the implications here felt more ominous than hopeful. If this was supposed to be a joke, visual or black, then this was definitely a tasteless one.
Let's talk about the slapstick, just so I can take my mind off of it.
I think the most significant source of the movie's black humor came from the physical pratfalls that the Smuntz brothers, and even the exterminator they hired - I'll talk about him shortly - had to put up with courtesy of the mouse. That also goes for some of the supporting characters who dealt with some blows of their own regardless of the conditions, such as during the auction scene. The humor was black probably because of how these characters dealing with the pratfalls were otherwise solidly established characters beforehand. Despite the severity of the painful blows they dealt with, they were still exaggerated enough to warrant a few laughs out of me.
This all got to a point where MouseHunt started to feel like a cartoon, albeit one that's conveyed in live-action. The most notable example that springs to mind when I say that was the chase scenes between the mouse and Catzilla, which felt like the closest thing to a live-action Tom and Jerry you would ever see. More impressively, the physics were such that they felt more realistic and effective than any Disney live-action remakes as of late.
The idea that both Lars and Ernie developed such a personal vendetta against this mouse was both ridiculous and yet ripe for comedy galore. Let's look at why it seemed ridiculous. If the Smuntz brothers were so concerned about the house's welfare because of the mouse living there, they could have just taken the right actions needed to either kill the mouse or evacuate it elsewhere. I mean, granted, none of those worked for this mouse, but why develop such a personal grudge against a freaking mouse?
Nevertheless, this whole idea was just hilarious comedy waiting to happen, as I said. The Smuntz brothers' slapstick was cartoony enough, but as the stakes got higher, the measures taken to put the mouse in his place became more outlandish. For starters, the cat Ernie and Lars brought home, Catzilla, looked like he was the tiniest kind of aggressive beast to have ever lived. He was gnarly, he had super strength, and during his time in the City Pound, he was said to have been gassed once, with the pound managers having considered gassing him again. Once the exterminator, whose name was Caesar, came in, his mannerisms, ways of speaking, and astute descriptions of the mouse he dealt with were clearly an exaggeration of how regular predators can catch mice.
Whenever I read of someone else's intake of MouseHunt, they mostly described the slapstick scenes as a cross between Home Alone and Tom and Jerry, and they're pretty much on point, as far as I know.
Of course, that's just the slapstick. How do the characters themselves hold up? Well, Ernie and Lars Smuntz both expressed varying levels of charm, egotism, and borderline stupidity to them. Ernie was sarcastic, talented in the culinary arts, and was pretty self-conceited as far as the factory and his father were concerned. On the other hand, Lars was more honorable and willing to live up to his father's dying wish to maintain the string factory and never sell it off to those seeking it. And unlike Ernie, who was more pessimistic about the downfalls they both put up with, Lars was more optimistic about it and tried to make things easier for them. The mouse himself, despite being just a regular animal, still just overflew with personality, ranging from modest and observant to clever, smart, and knowledgeable about how to thwart any intruders he may have had to deal with in his home. Lars' wife, April, was just a money-hungry leech. Once Lars came home to tell her of his refusing to sell his factory to a couple of businessmen from Zeppco International, she did not take the news very well. She was more in pursuit of money than anything else, and out of frustration against Lars for not selling the factory, she kicked him out of the house. This left me wondering exactly what Lars saw in April because this scene showed a noticeable level of naivete to him, despite his best intentions. Read this conversation between Lars and Ernie and tell me that he has given April one benefit of the doubt too many.
Lars: I'd let you stay with me, you know, but, uh, April threw me out.
Ernie: Oh, that's too bad.
Lars: Yeah, well, don't worry about me, though, Ernie. This is temporary. April's been like this since high school. She'll be back.
...even though she threw you out of your own house and made perfectly clear that she was after your and your father's fortune all this time, more than she ever was into you? Talk about a pitiful judge of character!
And, of course, when Lars and Ernie were gearing themselves up for the auction on the Missing LaRue, the lawyer passed the news onto April. Then suddenly, in the blink of an eye, she reunited with Lars with the utmost devotion, and it's pretty obvious she's doing this for the money.
If you want some words of advice, Lars, here's mine: divorce April. Plain and simple.
The two Belgian hair model sisters that Ernie met in town, Hilde and Ingrid, were not quite interesting and were only there to show off as ladies for Ernie to hit on and for them to demonstrate their hairstyling techniques at the auction. The rest of the characters felt pretty standard, including the Zeppco businessmen, Theodore Plumb (the mortgage guy), and LaRue aficionado Alexander Falco. However, Rudolf Smuntz, the father, seemed to show an implied level of eccentricity, as his legacy left quite a split impression on his two sons. He was devoted to string to the point of establishing his factory out of it, and his trust in his sons was quite varied. At one point, Ernie mentioned to Lars how he made him some lamb for his 70th birthday, but what he was more intrigued by was the string Ernie used with that meal.
It's actually kind of amazing how much you can learn about this guy from just the conversations, the flashbacks, his actions from beyond the grave... even his REactions from beyond the grave.
No, seriously, it all came about through the facial expressions from the painting of Rudolf Smuntz in the factory's main office. It started when Ernie was perusing through the paperwork Lars got from Zeppco and gained an interest in renegotiating their proposed deal. Then when Ernie looked at the painting, Rudolf had a disapproving look on his face as if he was saying to Ernie through that painting, "Do you even know what you're doing?"
Rudolf's painting changed in its facial expressions a few times more throughout the movie, and that clued me in that there was a certain presence to feel from this character. It's pretty creepy, but other times, it felt touching, too.
The performances throughout the movie were not bad at all, even if they're not necessarily the greatest, either. Nathan Lane excelled in giving Ernie Smuntz his sense of sarcasm and pompous demeanor, and Lee Evans managed to give Lars Smuntz a sense of decency and conscientiousness. And when they were in situations where they engaged in physical comedy with the mouse... Well, parts of it may have felt like obligatory slapstick, but they still let it all out in going as utterly nuts as possible in their pursuits against the mouse, and they were fun to watch. The rest of the actors turned in decent performances, too, including Vicki Lewis as April Smuntz, Mario Cantone and Peter Anthony Rocca as the Zeppco businessmen, and Maury Chaykin as Alexander Falco.
Of course, there are three standout performances that I find to be worthy of mention. The first is Christopher Walken as Caesar. The sly, breathy tone in his voice as he engaged in conversations about knowing your enemy and acknowledging the activities of the mouse he sought gave him an unnatural sense of astuteness in situations such as this. And it only became more bizarre if you've seen him from The Deer Hunter or Pulp Fiction, since his characters from both those movies dealt with war. Because of that, Walden made Caesar's mouse hunting profession look equivalent to being out on a battlefield. This made his performance, for those reasons, the weirdest in the whole movie.
The second performance is William Hickey as Rudolf Smuntz. In one of his final film roles before he passed away, Hickey expressed a level of tenderness as Rudolf as he rested in a hospital bed in the movie's flashback. It was genuine, endearing, and if this was how Hickey really was in his condition as he gave his performance, then this showed a level of commitment he had to his craft in the last few aspects of his life.
And the third performance was more centered around production connections. And that would be concerning the City Pound manager, Maury, played by none other than Ernie Sabella. If his voice sounds familiar, that's because he played Pumbaa with Nathan Lane, who played Timon, in The Lion King. Just watching these two actors communicate in a live-action setting after being acquainted with them from that movie added a distinct level of recognizable charm to it. It even almost softened the blows I felt from the girl-dragging scene before it. Well, almost.
Speaking of which, let's dive into a bit of history concerning MouseHunt for a minute. Released in December 1997, this was one of the first movies ever produced and distributed by then-newcomer DreamWorks, founded by Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen. Now, the Katzenberg side of the story was pretty compelling because if you've known the story of him and Disney, even if it was through Waking Sleeping Beauty, he did not part from Disney on good terms. So, MouseHunt took some slight potshots at Disney, even in one of its trailers. Take a look and see for yourself.
It's interesting how I'm talking about Disney here because, ironically, this was also the first movie ever directed by Gore Verbinski, who you may recognize from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. Isn't it just odd when something was established separately in Disney's wake, only for what it established on its own to play its part with Disney? Plus, if you've known those movies, you'd catch on to how Verbinsky used plenty of methods of black comedy, primarily through Jack Sparrow, when they were not busy engaging in full-scale action.
Getting back to the movie, one thing about it that I felt was a little overdone was the color scheme. Outside of a few scenes which felt pretty colorful, like at Chez Ernie or the streets with the Christmas decorations, the movie mostly felt gray and dull. I get the idea that maybe the movie was going for some more realism and a bit of the "lagging behind in the modern times" vibe, but it made the movie feel a bit dreary and not lifelike enough. Sometimes, it didn't even compliment the movie's slapstick scenes, even though the slapstick mostly worked.
As I let it sit, it just occurred to me that the characters' motivations were just all over the place. Unlike William Hickey's acting, they showed an inconsistent level of devotion to their cause. As far as the mouse was concerned, he was just a mouse trying to defend himself, but the level of determination he showed in it was pretty extreme. Rumor had it that the Missing LaRue's last owner was found locked in a trunk in the attic. And then, when the medics found Caesar in bad shape after his run-in with the mouse, the doctors and police said that they came to the scene after receiving a 911 call and heard nothing from that call but screaming in the background. And when they found him in the house, he, too, was found locked in a trunk in the attic. Could the mouse have done all of that? If so, then sheesh! The level of ingenuity and know-how this one little mouse had on outsmarting invaders was so frighteningly monumental that he would've given Basil of Baker Street a run for his money. And then, when the Smuntz brothers' attempts on the house failed, resulting in them going back to the factory, the mouse just decided to tag along and help them by getting the factory working, only this time, it's with string cheese. And suddenly, all's right with the world. Where did that come from?
April has shown some differing motivations in her quest for money, going from dropping Lars on a dime for not selling his factory to reuniting with him after hearing about the auction. And then, at that auction, when she was Heimlich-maneuvered out of an olive she choked on by a cowboy millionaire, she decided to stick to him like glue next. God help him. On the other hand, this showed just how in love with cold hard cash she really was. You see, my idea of a good wife is someone loving and caring. But suppose her personality was such that it instead left me with eyes in the back of my head. In that case, that would clue me in to just how untrustworthy she is and that anyone unfortunate enough to be affiliated with someone like her should've caught onto that sooner. In fact, had Rudolf Smuntz caught onto this when he was alive?
That and the Smuntz brothers sure had an unfocused devotion to what they thought was a worthy cause. First, they talked about what to do with the factory, which was, of course, resolved by Lars refusing to sell the company, except for when Ernie attempted to renegotiate the deal with Zeppco, leading to some family quarrels between them about their devotion to their father. Then, once they settled inside the missing LaRue, they dismissed it as worthless at first before discovering its origins and trying to refurbish it for the upcoming auction. And yet, the slapstick they endured in trying to get rid of the mouse only left the house in further disrepair. Then, after the brothers intended to get him out of the picture for good by sending him off to Cuba in a package, the mouse only came to return to the house during the auction. Once the brothers caught onto it, their #1 priority was to hunt down the mouse again, to the point where they didn't acknowledge how much money the house was about to make. Even their last resort in getting rid of the mouse, which was to turn on the hose at full blast in the mouse hole, ended up tearing the bidding room apart, washing out all the bidders, and ultimately, leaving the house to crumble into a pile of rubbish. Well, there goes any chance they had for a forthcoming paycheck.
Ultimately, I can sum up MouseHunt with two big Ws: wacky and weird. It was eccentric in both a delightful and absurd way, and of course, it lagged a little because of the black comedy marks that didn't work, the color scheme, and the main characters' motivations. Whatever your thoughts on it may be, though, it did benefit from a few black comedy marks that DID hit their mark. And the adequacy of the acting, the charm from the main characters, and the slapstick that more often than not never failed to get even the slightest chuckle out of me? Those helped too.
Much like the mouse himself, it may be gray and a bit stomach-churning, but it is not without its moments of charm and admirability.
My Rating: C+
—I didn't understand what kind of renovation the Smuntz brothers had in mind when they talked about the Missing LaRue. In light of their discovery of the house's origins, they decided to have the auction scheduled in one week, during which they could've given the house some renovations. Were they thinking of having it looking nice and fancy-schmancy for the auction, or did they really think of giving the house a full-on renovation? Because if they really wanted to provide the house with the refurbishment it needed, I would personally have recommended at least a year of renovating, or two, tops, not to mention the helping hands of, say, the crew of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Those would really have done the house wonders.
—One part of Rudolf Smuntz that was pretty intriguing was when he trusted his two sons to share a piece of string he kept with him since he first laid foot on America, or, as they called it, Pop's Lucky String. They held onto it until the mouse devoured that piece of string. Then, when the house crumbled into pieces, and the mouse was seemingly dead (even though he wasn't), a ray of light shone in front of the Smuntz brothers as a piece of string fell and laid right in front of them. Once Lars picked it up, and Ernie took it from him, it split into two. I bet this was probably Rudolf's way of telling them, "Great work, boys. Now, here's my real Lucky String. Oh, and you can each have the halves." Pretty weird sense of trickery he did from beyond the grave, isn't it?
—There was one moment of slapstick from Lars and Ernie that definitely leaned more toward the raunchy side. When they tried to catch the mouse during the auction, who was crawling on the Belgian hair models' hair, it then jumped into Hilde's dress, with Lars immediately forcing his hand down it in the hopes of grabbing the mouse. This sequence went on for a couple of minutes before Lars had the mouse in his hand. And then, when the mouse crawled into Lars, Ernie tried to grab the mouse for him...starting with in the pelvic area of his suit. Funny, yet also weird in how prolonged these two sequences were.