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Sunday, February 25, 2024
Feb. 25, 2024

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Review: If you loved ‘Monk,’ Peacock’s new movie is a welcome return

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Tony Shalhoub, whose credits are many and range wide, has taken his Adrian Monk (brown) suit out of mothballs after 14 years for “Mr. Monk’s Last Case: A Monk Movie,” premiering Friday on Peacock. For those new to the story, told across eight seasons of the comedy procedural “Monk,” Monk was a San Francisco consulting police detective whose distinguishing characteristic was a full slate of OCD symptoms and every sort of phobia the writers felt it convenient or funny to give him; these were exacerbated by a nervous breakdown after the murder of his wife, Trudy (Melora Hardin), which remained a mystery until the series’ final episode. That alternation between the serious and the absurd was the series’ stock in trade.

As the mournful Monk, Shalhoub may be rated among the great screen comedians, specifically those who use the intimacy of the camera to create characters who remain still at the heart of chaos of which they’re often the cause. Your Stan Laurel, your Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean, your Droopy the cartoon pooch. As a detective, he’s a superhero, with keen powers of observation, but as a person, he’s the hangdog underdog, the little guy, upon whom his foes look with disdain. He’s a man, and he’s a child, for worse but also very much for better.

“Mr. Monk’s Last Case” is basically just a double-length episode of the series, but with the challenge of standing alone after 14 years and providing a workable new(ish) environment for the players. (The cast has aged well.) With a screenplay from series creator Andy Breckman and direction by Randy Zisk, who helmed 35 episodes of the original series, its bona fides can hardly be questioned. Just as pure fan service, it’s a welcome return. If you liked “Monk” you’ll obviously want to watch it — and if you’ve never seen “Monk,” you should watch “Monk.” (The entire series is streaming on Peacock as well. It’s a lot of fun.)

If I rate the movie not quite on the level of an average “Monk” episode, it’s in part because the series was the product of a team working together, before and behind the camera, 16 weeks a year, with every quirk and detail studied and understood, and in part because the energy of a 45-minute basic cable episode is somewhat dissipated in this longer-than-necessary version.

On the other hand, it’s funny when it wants to be. A scene in which Monk goes undercover as a bartender who can’t finish making a drink makes no sense, but doesn’t need to. The joke writing is on point, and physical bits in which Monk attempts to arrange the random world into a more comforting order are the soul of the show.

At the airport, arranging a stranger’s bags by size: “You’ll thank me later.”

Stranger. “Why would I thank you? I don’t even know you.”

“You’ll thank me for that, too.”

When last we saw our obsessive detective, not counting a COVID-themed web short, “Mr. Monk Shelters in Place,” in 2020, he was in a fairly good space, having solved Trudy’s murder and discovered the adult daughter even she never knew she had; purpose and meaning seemed to have returned to his life. Now, supposedly as a result of the pandemic, he’s relapsed into an even more depressive version of his old mopey self — I suppose a purely cheery Monk would be … some other character.

The movie opens with Monk, retired from police work, seated in a publisher’s office, fiddling with his chair; contracted to write a book about the 140 homicides he’s solved, he’s delivered instead a heavy manuscript that is mostly digressions about ovens and vacuum cleaners and such, and his deal is being canceled. (Shalhoub’s wife, Brooke Adams, is doing the canceling.) This distresses him in that he has promised his late wife’s daughter (Caitlin McGee) to pay for her wedding.

It’s the wedding that provides the pretext to get the band back together, which is, after all, why we’ve come — mysteries are being solved hundreds of times a day in the televerse. Lt. Randy Disher (Jason Gray-Stanford) has become a sheriff in southern New Jersey; Natalie Teeger (Traylor Howard), Monk’s personal assistant, is selling houses in Atlanta; and Ted Levine’s Capt. Leland Stottlemeyer (ret.), is working somewhere the movie holds back as a surprise, and I will too. And like any band with history they are bonded together with love and pique.

“Monk” set its hero down in different environments and situations from week to week to see how he’d fare, building comic bits off those premises (e.g., “Mr. Monk Goes to a Fashion Show,” “Mr. Monk Goes to the Dentist,” “Mr. Monk Goes to a Rock Concert,” “Mr. Monk and the Class Reunion” — not incidentally, they sound like kids’ books) like a Mack Sennett two-reeler. The setting here reflects the jump from 2009 to 2023, with James Purefoy as a Bezos/Musk/Branson stand-in, who plans to be the first private citizen to orbit the Earth, but who will commit multiple murders; one of which will get Monk back on the job.

“How does it feel to be working again?” asks Monk’s therapist, Dr. Neven Bell (Héctor Elizondo).

“Like riding a bicycle.”

“Good, I’m glad to hear that.”

“I mean it’s terrifying.”

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