They had me at Mold-A-Rama.
Any film that features Joel Murray as the head of security at the Field Museum, who stands by patiently as the lead character pays his three bucks and gets his awesome plastic green dinosaur from the Mold-A-Rama machine — that’s a movie for me.
And yet that quirky little interlude is only about the 14th strangest (in a good way) moment in writer-director Jack C. Newell’s wonderfully weird and decidedly offbeat gem about a romance that cannot be stopped or silenced, even by death. With an almost circus-like score setting the tone, a supernatural touch and a terrific ensemble cast playing characters that range from the eccentric to the deeply eccentric, “Monuments” is at times grounded, at times almost hallucinogenic — and always smart and entertaining.
David Sullivan, looking like he just exited an off-Broadway stage and is ready for his shaggy-haired leading man indie-film closeup, gives an effective, deadpan performance as Ted, a college professor who is devastated by the sudden death of his wife Laura (Marguerite Moreau, the versatile and strikingly beautiful actress whose resume includes everything from “The Mighty Ducks” to “Wet Hot American Summer” to TV series such as “Parenthood”). Ted intends to make a cross-country trip to Chicago to scatter Laura’s ashes in the Field Museum, but Laura’s strangeball family is having none of that. Javier Munoz’ Howl, a family friend who had an unrequited crush on Laura and is a macho clown with a big pickup truck and a hot temper, makes it his personal mission-bordering-on-obsession to stop Ted before he reaches Chicago and reclaim the ashes. Howl is like Javert, only much, much stupider.
Let the road trip movie begin — but this is not your typical road trip movie. At one point Ted meets a sultry and mysterious woman named Amber (Shunori Ramanthan), who takes an instant and intense interest in him, lives in a trailer in the middle of the woods and may or may not be an absolute lunatic. Later he’s stranded on the side of the road when he’s rescued by three women clad all in white who often break into song, as if they’re angels — but they’re also vaguely unsettling, as if they’re in some sort of sing-along cult.
Oh, and there’s this: Laura is with Ted all along the way. Only he can see her, but she’s not exactly a figment of his imagination; it’s more like she’s caught in an in-between world, and she’ll be able to move on only after her ashes find their final resting place. The connection between Ted and Laura is the heart and soul of the story; we believe their love and we buy into their journey continuing even after her death.
“Monuments” brims with sharp dialogue that sounds like comedic Mamet, to wit:
“I outfoxed the fox and you’re the fox.”
“Yeah and what does that make you?”
“A better fox!”
Not every dramatic conceit works and there are times when the ongoing battle between Ted and Howl grows tedious, but then we get great moments, as when Joel Murray as the aforementioned head of security scolds a little girl who has a small bone in her hand, presumably from one of the exhibits, and says: “Do you know what sacrosanct means? Sacrosanct: to be venerated, inviolable, untouchable. … You are banned from the Field Museum for life.”
For. Life. She’s like 7 years old. Too great.