With his flannel shirt, self-deprecating manner, and mellifluous New England voice, the monologist Spalding Gray suggests a WASP Woody Allen who has learned to stop worrying and love his own neuroses. Gray, whose entire act consists of sitting in front of an audience and ruminating about his life, has described himself as a ”sit-down comic,” and, indeed, there’s something oxymoronic about his whole personality. He’s a patrician spieler: His words come tumbling out at dizzying speeds, as if he were terrified of losing us, but beneath that whoosh of patter he’s coy, wily, and controlled, a rumpled narcissist who’s busy watching the audience watch him.
In Swimming to Cambodia, his first monologue to be filmed (it was directed — beautifully — by The Silence of the Lambs’s Jonathan Demme), Gray transformed his experiences during the shooting of The Killing Fields, in which he had a bit part, into a schlemiel’s-eye meditation on politics, filmmaking, and acting. In the new Monster in a Box, he takes off from a subject far closer to home: procrastination.
At the beginning of the monologue, he talks about heading off to a New Hampshire writer’s colony to finish an autobiographical novel centering on his mother’s suicide. (The film’s title refers to the always-beckoning, unfinished manuscript.) As Gray tells the story, he keeps getting pulled away — to Los Angeles, where producers are lining up to have lunch with him; to Moscow, where he learns that you can’t even get vodka anymore; to New York, where he plays the stage manager in a Lincoln Center revival of Our Town, only to be met with catastrophic reviews. If his travels don’t divert him, his anxieties do (at one point he suffers an AIDS scare). The underlying joke is that there’s a grand design to these diversions. Gray doesn’t have to dream up new ways to procrastinate. He’s a literate show-biz jack-of-all-trades; the excuses pile up on schedule.
Monster in a Box is a funny, messy ramble, neither as elegant nor as structurally unified as Swimming to Cambodia. Yet I enjoyed it just about as much. The director, Nick Broomfield, borrows many of Demme’s visual tricks — notably the rapid-fire reverse-angle shots when Gray re-creates a conversation — and the movie coasts along on the airy wit of its star. Watching Monster in a Box, it became clear to me that it doesn’t really matter what Spalding Gray is talking about. He’s not a deep thinker, and his true subject is always himself — that is, his cautious (and secretly delighted) attempt to negotiate a world that’s constantly throwing him curves.
The writer’s block business is just a MacGuffin. The best moments are Gray’s offhanded confessional anecdotes: tales of toting little vodka bottles into restaurants so that he can drink on the cheap, the unabashed horror with which he greets his reviews for Our Town. The limitation of Gray’s act is that he’s not nearly as revealing as he pretends to be. Sure, he’s only too happy to appear petty and neurotic. But when you consider that Woody Allen was doing this stuff 15 years ago, Gray’s shtick seems relatively safe; he never risks surprising us with his dark side. Instead, he wears his hang-ups knowingly, like a smart suit — he could be one of the supporting flakes on Seinfeld. In Monster in a Box, he’s lively company. B+