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Six Legs, One Joke

All-singing, all-dancing -- and, yes, all-crawling -- Joe's Apartment is the world's first live-action musical comedy in which singing and dancing cockroaches perform elaborate production numbers. And if you can get past your initial impulse to reach for a can of industrial-strength Raid, you will find that there are at least 30 or so minutes of inspired silliness to savor here.

Unfortunately, those choice bits are scattered about an 80-minute feature.
It might be a good idea to wait until this MTV Production hits home video, so you can watch it while armed with a fast-forward remote. Certainly, you won't have to wait very long until it hits your friendly neighborhood Blockbuster. Warner Bros. opted to toss Joe's Apartment out its corporate back window July 26, without the benefit of press previews. That, trust me, usually is a good sign that even the distributor doesn't expect a film to spend much time in multiplexes.

Joe's Apartment actually is an expanded version of an award-wining short that first aired on MTV in 1992. Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker John Payson, creator of the original short, it combines real actors, real roaches and hundreds of computer-generated bugs, often to very amusing effect.

Jerry O'Connell, a fresh-faced Dennis Quaid look-alike from TV's Sliders, plays Joe, an ingenuous young man from Iowa who steps off the bus in New York City, and gets mugged three times in rapid succession. Things only get worse after he lucks into a seedy but affordable apartment in a Lower East Side slum. The unscrupulous landlord (Don Ho -- yes, that Don Ho) has hired two vicious thugs to chase all tenants out of the building so the site can be sold to the city for a new maximum-security prison. Those tenants who won't move are exterminated.

Fortunately, Joe finds some new friends who laugh in the face of exterminators: Ralph (voiced by Billy West) and Rodney (Reginald Hudlin), two cocky cockroaches who serve as unofficial ringleaders for the thousands of other roaches who share Joe's apartment.

Joe's Apartment is funniest when it sticks to wringing every possible laugh from its exuberantly weird one-joke premise. Thanks to the modern miracle of special effects -- along with a little help from "roach wrangler" Ray Mendez -- the audience is entertained by dozens of singing, dancing and wisecracking insects. There are roaches who perform barbershop-quartet ballads, roaches who get frisky with country and western tunes and roaches who perform spectacular aquatic numbers (in the apartment's grimy toilet bowl) that are equal parts Busby Berkeley and Esther Williams. At the very end, there's even a roach version of a rousingly uplifting gospel choir.

But wait, there's more: roaches tune in to an underground cable network where talk-show host Charlie Roach tries to maintain some degree of civility while a pigeon, a rat and a squirrel debate the possibilities of peaceful coexistence. Juvenile? Maybe. Obvious? Definitely. Funny? Very.

After he gets over his initial misgivings about sharing his digs with so many six-legged roommates, Joe accepts the roaches. A good thing, too, since he needs their help to win the heart of Lily (Megan Ward), an idealistic bureaucrat who dreams of converting inner-city vacant lots into lush flower gardens. Lily just happens to be the daughter of Senator Dougherty (Robert Vaughn), who just happens to be in league with the unscrupulous landlord. Complications arise, roaches rally and good triumphs over evil.

Unfortunately, nothing that any of the humans contribute to Joe's Apartment is nearly as interesting as the musical numbers and comedy riffs of the cockroaches. O'Connell makes an agreeable impression simply by being such a good sport about interacting with, and being upstaged by, the insects. But writer/director Payson has failed to give him anything particularly funny to do or say.

The other two-legged actors fare even worse, and often seem more cartoonish than the computer-generated insects. Jim Turner is painfully unfunny as a performance artist named -- no kidding! -- Walter Shit, while Vaughn is reduced to dropping hints of a secret life as a transvestite. A passing thought: did Vaughn keep his wardrobe from Blake Edwards' S.O.B., or was he forced to shop for new lacy underthings to play the senator?

Thanks to visual effects supervisor Michael Turoff, the cockroaches look like, well, real roaches. Even so, they are charismatic enough to overcome any possible gross-out factor. Of course, the very fact that this is a movie about cockroaches should be enough to keep away people who are easily grossed out by such things.

-- Joe Leydon

Joe's Apartment.
Directed by John Payson. With Jerry O'Connell, Megan Ward and Robert Vaughn.

Rated PG-13.
80 minutes.

 
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