It is best to watch Dunston Checks In, as I did, with an audience of very small children. Only in such conditions can a properly socialised adult regress sufficiently to enjoy the giddy comic mayhem of this tale of an orangutan set loose in a five star hotel.
From the earliest days of silent comedy to Four Rooms (1995), hotels have always been good places for slapstick anarchy. The multitude of corridors, doors, chutes and food trays offer great opportunities for physical gags. Every new room holds the possibility of a new set of characters, and hence an extra, complicating sub-plot.
Above all, a luxury hotel is a veritable microcosm of social manners – the pained servility of the lower classes clashing with the gregarious excesses of the upper classes. In hotel movies, the inevitable collapse of Western civilisation is symbolised by everyone falling into a cake, an elevator shaft or a ritzy swimming pool. And so it is with Dunston Checks In.
Robert (Jason Alexander from Seinfeld) manages the Majestic Hotel, which is about to host the gala social occasion of the season, the Crystal Ball. The usual subversive mischief perpetrated by Robert's two sons, Kyle (Eric Lloyd) and Brian (Graham Sack), upsets the hotel's black-hearted owner, Mrs Dubrow (Faye Dunaway).
Although grounded by his Dad and forbidden to play, Kyle soon hitches up with the roaming Dunston. This spirited ape is fleeing from his owner, the master thief Lord Rutledge (Rupert Everett). Rutledge is a strutting, pompous villain – but there are also discreet hints that he beat Dunston's brother to death with a stick.
Dunston is a marvellous character – and he is not a computer animation, which is a relief. He is like a wild, unsocialised child: patting his bum and making rude noises, turning every space he passes through into an utter mess, and drinking from everything in sight (toilet bowls, perfume bottles). A scene in which Dunston massages a sexually frustrated society matron is especially hilarious.
Dunston Checks In certainly provides the finest hour of director Ken Kwapis' career – at least until the triumphant comeback ushered in by The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants (2005). The clear influence of the Coen brothers' screwball comedy The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) – even in this diluted, more mainstream form – is truly invigorating.
And, for pining fans of the fallen Pee-wee Herman, there is even a delightful, small part for Paul Reubens – climbing under tables and poking his head between the legs of rich guests as he inquires: "Have you seen the pongo pygmaeus?"
MORE Kwapis: He Said, She Said
© Adrian Martin April 1996