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Roach Gauche

Photo by K.C. Bailey

The Cockroaches Are Revolting: Joe (Jerry O'Connell) fantasizes himself as Rambo, attacking roaches with bug spray.

Bugged by 'Joe's Apartment'

By Richard von Busack

Someday roaches will inherit the earth. When they do, what will the eight-legged scholars in their universities make of Joe's Apartment, the first movie in which the roaches are more involving than people? Will they have access to the secret letters and treaties proving the film was the work of human fifth columnists?

The idea of sentient, wisecracking roaches is not new. In the 1920s, newspaperman don marquis wrote a column for the Baltimore Sun from the point of view of archy, a cockroach who was a reincarnated poet. During the 1960s, both Howard Cruse and Gilbert Shelton created cockroach characters: Cruse's Barefootz had the roaches as friendly advisers; Shelton, responsible for the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, fancied roaches that were military strategists quoting MacArthur and Hitler.

Joe's Apartment director John Payson plainly knows his animation and comics, and that's the best thing you can say for him. The nauseating scat humor combines with an even more insulting inability to rally interest in the two-legged characters. Twenty minutes into Joe's Apartment, there's no story, just the aimless wanderings of Joe (Jerry O'Connell), an average Joe arrived from Iowa, who gets his introduction to New York trying to find a place to live. Eventually Joe inherits a dead old lady's apartment, which is full of singing, dancing cockroaches.

Joe tries to hold on to a job, but the engaging little bugs follow him everywhere, riding on the pizzas he tries to deliver and frolicing in the Xerox machines he tries operate. The featureless Joe also has a crush on an equally generic blonde girl (Megan Ward) he saw from the bus. She's the daughter of a senator (Robert Vaughn) who is trying to bulldoze Joe's apartment.

Joe's bad-guy landlord is a decadent, reptilian, leathery old sinner, radiating enough equatorial menace to make Manuel Noriega look like Aldous Huxley, and I was about to herald this unknown actor as a new low in screen sleaze when I discovered he was Don Ho. Playing "Tiny Bubbles" every night for 30 years does something to a man's soul. Ho ought to be in more movies. So should Jim Turner, late of the Duck's Breath Mystery Theater, useless here in a one-joke part as a performance artist named "Shit." (Shit, get it?)

Against a cast like this, the animated roaches, making their terrible puns in high-pitched, speedy voices, are the only bearable part of the show. You get a ratio of one minute of roach to 10 minutes of human; while there's something arresting about cockroaches putting on a Busby Berkeley­style water ballet in a toilet bowl--it's the part of the movie that makes you feel that you've really seen something--Joe's Apartment is a savage bore of a film, and probably the low-water mark of its division until someone comes up with The Budweiser Toads--The Movie.

I don't have anything against cockroaches; I long ago learned to respect the wiliness, the boldness, the mysteriousness of the little buggers. Humanity has finally found a foe worthy of its steel, but I'm sorry to see them exalted like this; they may win in the end, but do we have to surrender so quickly, ending up like the heroine here, smiling wanly at a boiling swarm of them and saying, "I think they're kind of cute"?

Joe's Apartment, directed and written by John Payson and starring Jerry O'Connell, Megan Ward, Don Ho and Robert Vaughn.

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From the August 1-7, 1996 issue of Metro

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