By: Daniel Reynolds
Hey, remember when the Farrelly brothers were a thing? Yeah you do. It was around that time in the late 90s (a crazy time, really) when they were riding the crest of the ‘There’s Something About Mary’ wave as comedy directors in demand. It’s time for some full disclosure: I think that movie is terrible and all of their subsequent movies confirm that they are just grabbing at the lowest hanging fruit possible. They’re like Matt Parker and Trey Stone without the cultural/political awareness or, you know, any intelligence. This column has nothing to do with Mary.
Instead, we arrive at our subject today and the stunning return of the We Can Remake It feature: Osmosis Jones.
Now, let me ask you, do you remember Osmosis Jones? Yeah, you probably do not. I remember seeing the poster frequently (I was working in a movie theatre at the time) and being blown away by the potential of the concept. I’ll stand by that strong language – even though I was 16 at the time.
The buddy comedy (and its derivative, the buddy cop comedy) is one of the most tired genres around. We’ve got white/black cops, cop/criminal teamups, a cop and a dog and everything in between. For screenwriters, it’s an irresistible story hook. You’ve got the high stakes, explosive action of a crime story mixed with the ‘hilarious’ contrasts between the two leads (See Rush Hour 3 for the logical endpoint to this type of thinking). All you need to come up with are fresh settings and misunderstandings for your two leads and the script practically writes itself (again: see Rush Hour 3).
So with buddy cop movies getting more and more expansive, hungry for new takes on an old idea, it is moderately surprising that it took so long for an astute filmmaker or screenwriter to look inward. After all, everyone knows that white blood cells are the cops of the body, walking their beat (in the blood stream), reporting back to a central HQ (the heart). If every combination of human and animal cop movie has been done, why not take it cellular? Are you intrigued yet? I know I am, er, I mean, I was at the time. This is where Osmosis Jones starts.
Obviously, setting a film inside a human body causes some logistics problems – the least of which is how to deal with craft services. To solve this problem with Osmosis Jones, the script (written by Marc Hyman, who is apparently responsible for the story of Meet the Fockers) was turned into an animated film. A entire world is created inside of a man named Frank. We are introduced to our hero, Osmosis Jones, we meet his love interest, Leah, and the leader of Frank, Mayor Phlegmming. Coming out in the heyday of the animated arms race of the late 90s, early 2000s means that OJ is stacked with quality voice actors. Jones is voiced by Chris Rock, Leah by singer Brandy, and the Mayor by William Freakin’ Shatner. To complete the buddy cop equation, David Hyde Pierce is added for an inspired bit of casting as the cold pill named Drixonal, Jones’ partner. Finally, Laurence Fishbourne provides some tremendous slithering vocal work as the villainous virus, Thrax. Even Ron Howard drops by for an Andy Griffith-approved cameo as rival mayoral candidate Tom Colonic.
The plot, as you probably imagined, is not overly complex. Jones is the well-meaning but reckless cop on the force that is longing for his chance to save the day and get his heroic recognition. Thrax gets into Frank and starts his plan to eventually kill him. Drix awkwardly teams up with Jones to combat the illness, and the Mayor just wants Frank to enjoy the Buffalo Wing Fest so he can keep his voters happy and stay in power. However, what the plot lacks in originality it makes up for in charm and character. Taking full advantage of the setting, the world of Frank is filled with all sorts of creative imaginings of the body’s rudimentary functions. The stomach is a huge train station, nasal gunners sit at the ready to shoot down harmful pollen, the armpit is where the local crime bacteria syndicates hang out. For all the familiarity of the buddy cop story, its our familiarity with our own bodily processes, and their visualization, that really do make parts of the film fun to watch.
So then why did Osmosis Jones fail?
Unfortunately for Osmosis Jones and Warner Brothers, the film was released in a post-Toy Story world. The days of the lovingly hand drawn smash hit cartoons were coming to an end. Sure, films like The Prince of Egypt and Tarzan were still making money, but the decline from the Beauty and the Beast/Lion King heyday was at hand. Then, the Iron Giant flopped hard (single tear), while Toy Story 2 made huge bucks, and it definitely felt like hand drawn animation was about to get HAL9000-ed out of existence. This is the climate that Osmosis Jones – a film that didn’t have Disney’s marketing or talent behind it – crawled into. Even with the inventive premise, it had to feel vaguely terminal. But, there was an additional Farrelly-sized problem with the whole enterprise.
Did you look closely at the picture at the top of this column? If you did you saw an x-ray machine in position over a body, the screen revealing an exciting snapshot of our heroes in action. Look again and you may notice that that body is not just anybody: it is Bill Murray. Yes, to quote GZA, Bill Groundhog-Day, Ghostbustin’-ass Murray(!) is in this movie, too. And not even he can salvage the live action appendages dangling from its loose narrative. His lazily filmed storyline, involving unhealthy living, an unfortunate vomiting incident at his daughter’s school, and his deadbeat life with friend Chris Elliot, is really just an excuse for the Farrelly brothers to harhar their way through the typical rundown of fart jokes. It takes a special talent to make a movie starring Bill Murray that pushes us to want all the parts that aren’t Murray. The Farrelly brothers have that talent.
It will soon be 15 years since Osmosis Jones came out. I admit this is a pretty short turnaround for a remake but let’s look at the facts: we’ve got an indefatigable premise (the buddy cop movie), and a bizarre and fun (albeit less fresh now) setting to play in. We’ve also got a renewed market for animated films driven by the CGI masterworks of Pixar and the kid-marketed bonanzas from Dreamworks. We’ve also, as a culture, tossed the Farrelly brothers back into whatever comedy hellhole they came from. That has to count for something, right?
I say we look to make a CGI movie set entirely within the human body; that was the invigorating part of Osmosis Jones, not Bill Murray fighting with a monkey or shooting the shit with Chris Elliot. Imagine the cop tropes that could be borrowed from now in the post-Wire, post-Bad Boys, post-Wreck It Ralph world. Or maybe it becomes a broader spy adventure with sneaky bacteria attempting to overthrow the cells in control. Maybe a war movie? Wait, I’m getting ahead of myself here, overwhelmed by a plethora of blood pumping options.
You see, this is ultimately the great disappointment of Osmosis Jones: a brilliantly rich idea based on the micro, lashed to the incompetent small-mindedness of the macro.