Buddy is in desperate need of some contextualizing. The film takes place—roughly—between 1928 and 1933. Given that timeline, it’s a little weird the Great Depression doesn’t start, but Buddy’s also really strange about when it decides to be grown-up and when it doesn’t. The film tells the story of eccentric socialite Gertrude Lintz, who raised chimpanzees as her children. Until a zoo needed to get rid of a baby gorilla, and she raised him as a human child, too. It turns out chimps and gorillas are different, which Lintz—played by Rene Russo—completely ignores, even as her husband (Robbie Coltrane) tells her to think about it, even as her assistant (Alan Cumming) tells her to think about it.
If Buddy could talk, he’d probably tell her to think about it too.
But Russo doesn’t listen. Or when she does listen, it’s not a scene. Buddy skips almost all of the character moments for Russo, which is really strange since she narrates the movie (presumably with lines from the real Lintz’s memoir, which… could use some punching up).
Buddy’s very short—eighty-four minutes (I didn’t time the credits either)—and most of the movie involves Russo trying to get Buddy (a combination of animatronics, puppetry, and man in suit) to learn how to act more civilized while the chimps she’s ignored since four minutes into the movie have hijinks. Buddy’s bullish on training apes to perform tricks, which is a bit of a flex. Though regular science at the time—in the form of a Paul Reubens cameo—thinks apes are violent man-eaters or something. As for zoos… they don’t talk about why zoos are bad. Except lack of money. Wonder where they could get some.
The chimp hijinks are incredible, but they’re also in questionable taste. Buddy casts many of its characters as caricatures—watching Irma P. Hall fight through being the Black housekeeper to eccentric rich white folks is incredible. Not to mention once she shows she’s going to put in the effort opposite the animatronic.
The first few scenes of the film are a little concerning. Everything is for sight gags, or it’s the lackluster narration. And then Russo and the baby gorilla doll aren’t dramatically compelling. But once Buddy starts to grow, Russo shows off how well she can act opposite the practical effects. And the practical effects are great. In the awkwardly paced third act, the script reveals that the whole thing has been about the animatronic ape’s experience of the film, which he can’t communicate because—despite having an elaborate supporting cast—Buddy only exists as Russo’s accessory.
Now, she comes to that realization, too, which means there should be some fantastic character development.
Except, like all the other character development, Buddy skips it. Buddy even skips the whole point because it doesn’t want to get into the history.
Though everyone else is ready for the history. Colleen Atwood’s costumes, Daniel A. Lomino and David Nichols’s delightful art deco production design, whoever put together the elaborate World’s Fair sets they’re on for under five minutes. A lot of effort went into Buddy. Either lots ended up on the cutting room floor, or the producers (and director and screenwriter Thompson) sorely misunderstood what they were doing.
There are also some weird scenes someone fought to keep in, like Russo telling priest Philip Baker Hall (in a fantastic cameo) to get over the whole creationism bit and get with the real. All the cameos are one-sceners—Rubens, Hall, John Aylward, a delightful Mimi Kennedy, young Dane Cook doesn’t count—which doesn’t help Buddy feel less… herky-jerky.
But the main leads are all good—Russo, Coltrane (who gets very little direction but still does a bunch of work), Cumming (he’s the standout), and Hall (Irma P.).
Lovely Steve Mason photography and a good—if repetitive—Elmer Bernstein round things out. Buddy’s a bit bumpy but more than okay; it should’ve been much better.