Animal Behavior

1990, Movie, PG, 90 mins

Review

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Though filming began in 1984, ANIMAL BEHAVIOR was not released until 1990 because producers Kjehl Rasmussen and Randolph Clendenen wanted to raise additional funds to boost the budget. Delays forced Rasmussen to finish the project for director Jenny Bowen (the pseudonym H. Anne Riley was used for the director's credit), but the substitution apparently did no harm to this low-key, intelligent romance.

Armand Assante plays Mark Mathias, a cellist and composer from New York who takes a teaching job at Lamont University so he can enjoy some midwestern peace and quiet while working on a new composition. Women are drawn to him irresistibly, but he, being an incurable white knight, is only attracted to damsels in distress. He is smitten immediately by Dr. Alex Bristow (Karen Allen) when he discovers her trying to coax a chimpanzee out of a campus tree. A psychologist experimenting with inter-species communication, Alex is trying to teach Michael, her chimp, sign language. She is considered something of a joke by most of the faculty (referred to as "Our Lady of the Apes" at a cocktail party) and is distraught because her department chairman and former lover, Dr. Parrish (Richard Libertini), is cutting her research budget two months before a visit by the American Science Foundation (ASF), which is considering Alex for a sizeable grant. When Mark tries to woo Alex, he discovers that she has no time for anything but her work. So he decides to learn sign language and become her lab assistant. He also befriends another down-on-her-luck woman, Coral Grable (Holly Hunter), who lives in the apartment below Mark's with her mute daughter, Cleo (Crystal Buda). Watching videotapes of Mark at play with Michael, Alex realizes that she is attracted to the musician and goes to his apartment to tell him. But there she meets Coral and Cleo and mistakes them for Mark's wife and daughter. Without explaining her feelings to Mark, Alex suddenly turns cold toward him. She keeps him around, however, because she needs help in the lab. Frustrated and confused by Alex's change of attitude, Mark is soon unable to concentrate on his work. One day, while baby-sitting Cleo, Mark discovers that she understands sign language--something she must have learned from playing with Michael. Excited, Mark takes Coral and Cleo to the lab and tries to tell Alex. However, Alex, offended because she thinks Mark is flaunting his wife and child, throws them out of the lab. Feeling completely rejected, Mark decides to leave the university and go back to New York. Meanwhile, the ASF people arrive for the site visit and inspect Alex's lab, barely able to conceal their boredom. When Alex tries to put Michael through his paces, he doesn't cooperate, and the ASF members stop paying attention, failing to see Michael ask for milk by forming a new word with sign language--proof that he has acquired language skills and is not merely mimicking Alex. When the committee asks Alex to have Michael repeat the new word, he again refuses to cooperate. As a result, Alex's grant application is turned down, and Parrish commandeers the chimp for one of his own experiments. Parrish straps Michael into a computerized machine that looks like a torture device and the chimp panics. Infuriated, Alex bursts into the lab and releases Michael, who promptly bites Parrish on the nose, then runs away, pursued by Parrish, the ASF committee, Alex, and Mark, who has stopped by to say goodbye. After leading a chase through a maze-like art installation, Michael runs into Cleo and begins talking with her in sign language, demonstrating inter-species communication. The ASF committee is floored by this scientific breakthrough and awards Alex a grant. Learning why Alex has been so distant, Mark explains that he isn't married, and he, Alex, and Michael become happy housemates.

ANIMAL BEHAVIOR was almost entirely overlooked in its token theatrical release, in which it was slipped onto a few screens in major cities at the same time PRETTY WOMAN and TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES were cleaning up at the box office. A pity, because this modest little movie deserves to be seen and appreciated. It manages to be intelligent without being pompous or pretentious, and entertaining without resorting to titillation. No one gets killed and no one walks around naked--except the monkey. (To be sure, the nasty Dr. Parrish gets poked in the snoot at the end, but this action falls under the heading of just desserts.) The lack of gratuitous violence and sex is so unusual that the viewer is nearly left with the feeling that something is missing. No rape, no romping, no mayhem. Only quiet, understated interactions among interesting people.

Ostensibly a love story, ANIMAL BEHAVIOR is also a story about how people do their jobs. The film reveals much about its characters by showing them at work: teaching students, planning art exhibits, endlessly reviewing laboratory results. The romance that involves all the main characters is only on the periphery of their lives--an unusual touch that adds a surprising amount of realism to the situation. In keeping with the subtle tone, all of the actors give believable, understated performances. Playing against type, Assante turns in a surprisingly gentle, almost diffident, performance as the soft-hearted musician. And Hunter is also effective in an extended cameo as a downtrodden but spunky young mother in this extraordinary film. leave a comment

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