Osmosis Jones (2001)

by Cynthia Fuchs


Saving Frank

Who would have guessed it? Living inside inveterate white guy Frank (Bill Murray) is a company of black folks. That’s the conceit of Osmosis Jones, in which you get to see what goes on deep within what may be the worst specimen of a human body ever conceived. Osmosis Jones isn’t really one movie, but rather two movies smooshed together, each with a separate plot and set of characters. One of these movies—the animated one that takes place inside Frank—is okay. The other one, involving live actors and lots of gross-out bodily function humor—is less pleasant.

Of course, pleasantness has never been a particular goal for the Farrelly brothers, who are the directors if the live action movie. And Murray does his best to make Frank as disgusting as possible, aided by repeated close-ups of his sweaty pores, hair follicles, nose-snot, gooey eyes, and, in the piece de resistance, a gargantuan zit on his forehead that throbs and oozes until it explodes, all over Mrs. Boyd (Molly Shannon), who is rightfully horrified. And why is Frank close enough to Mrs. Boyd so that his zit might explode all over her? On one level, it hardly matters, and on another, it ‘s the crux of Frank’s dilemma, as he is trying to do the right thing by his inhumanly patient and supportive daughter Shane (Elena Franklin), who happens to be Mrs. Boyd’s student—and convince Mrs. Boyd to allow his participation in a class outing. Obviously, this will never happen. But this is only the tip of the iceberg: the real problem is Frank’s repulsiveness and bad health—resulting from his affection for fried chicken and potato chips—increasingly stressful for Shane, especially because her mother recently died.

cover art

Osmosis Jones

Director: Peter and Bobby Farrelly, Piet Kroon, Tom Sito
Cast: Bill Murray, Molly Shannon, Elena Franklin, Chris Elliott, (voices of) Chris Rock, Laurence Fishburne, Brandy, David Hyde Pierce, William Shatner

(Warner Bros.)

His bad health also alarms the population of cartoon characters who make up The City of Frank, location for the second movie. This one, directed by Piet Kroon (The Iron Giant) and Tom Sito (Antz), features microscopic body elements—cells, germs, viruses, etc.—as cartoon characters. Inside Frank is a metropolis, complete with transportation services, entertainment, and a police force. And here’s where the titular Osmosis (voice of Chris Rock) comes in. Osmosis is a young and feisty white blood cell officer in the FrankPD, where his mission in life is to ensure the smooth-as-possible functioning of Frank. To accomplish this, he has to survive the spoof of buddy-cop movies that comprises his plot, where he runs into the usual cop-movie types: the blustery Mayor of Frank, a brain cell named Phlemming (William Shatner) who lives in Cerebellum Hall; the Mayor’s assistant, an independent woman-ish red blood cell named Leah (Brandy Norwood); plus assorted minor characters, including a crotchety captain and various street lowlifes.

The specific plot kicks into gear when Frank ingests a pernicious, potentially lethal virus, Thrax (Laurence Fishburne). Riding in on a hardboiled egg that Frank has dropped on the ground, Thrax arrives in the City ready to wreak havoc. He glows red, practices his sinister laugh, and takes over the local gang by rubbing out the godfather in a sauna (it’s a mini-gangster-movie or Sopranos spoof that, along with a Matrix fight scene freeze and a few other “set piece” scenes, highlights Osmosis Jones‘s everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to the spoof biz: after a while, it just feels like a pile-up). When Frank starts feeling the effects of this building disaster, he takes a cold pill, an act that introduces the crucial last element to the Osmosis plot—the buddy. Perhaps because he only has 12 hours to get his job done, Drix (David Hyde Pierce) is a stickler for rules and protocol; likes to go by the book, where Osmosis tends to operate on instinct. Bottom line: these two opposites must learn to get along, in order to vanquish Thrax and save the day, or more precisely, save Frank.

All this action inside Frank is, of course, determined by what he does to himself, but what develops inside him—a sneeze, a desire (usually engineered by the brain cells)—also affects his behavior, and so the film tends to lurch between realms. Whereas the outside “storyline” is all about bodily functions, inside, the jokes are quicker, combining colorful kid-pleasing animation and more or less adolescent verbal gags within an obvious framework, the cop-movie spoof. The body “architecture” is probably the snazziest idea here: the City is a morass of city streets, an airport (through which cells leave and enter the body); the bladder (a yellow harbor that’s drained regularly); and The Zit, a club with a waiting line and a bouncer outside, pulsing with music and just waiting to explode (see above description of Mrs. Boyd scene).

A lot goes on in Osmosis Jones, but the split between the two films becomes tedious after a couple of cuts between the two realms: Frank inhales pollen spores and the City defense system triggers a sneeze; Frank drinks beer with his buddy and fellow zoo employee/camel-dug shoveler, Bob (Chris Elliot), and the body prepares for the whoosh of fluid, etc. The roughness of these cuts suggests that the animated movie might have fared better on its own: at least it has a well-laid out (and well-known) trajectory. The outside Frank world is not a movie so much as a series of Farrelly brothers zingers mixed in with some sentimental claptrap about the precocious, adventurous, and brave little girl and her ignorant dad.

It is interesting that this dad has this very “urban”—streetwise, slangy, clued in—population living inside him, and something might be made of the contrasts between Osmosis’s healthy, if somewhat egotistical, blackness and Frank’s miserable, self-hating whiteness. But after you notice that Osmosis Jones has noticed the pop-cultural festishization of “blackness,” what can you say? The movie doesn’t pick up on its own insight. It keeps rolling around in that bodily function muck. Perhaps, eventually, the Farrellys will find in themselves the will to move on.

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