Is existential comedy a thing? If it is, then Monuments, a new film by Chicago-based filmmaker Jack C. Newell (Open Tables, 42 Grams), fits in that category—or maybe it’s just a road movie. Ted Daniels (David Sullivan, Primer, “Sharp Objects”) is grieving the death of his wife Laura (Marguerite Moreau, Wet Hot American Summer); his odyssey is to drive across the middle of the United States to deposit her ashes at their favorite Chicago spot, the Field Museum. And to make a stop at the Moldarama.
The couple formerly lived in Chicago and now live in a small town in Colorado. As the film opens, Laura and Ted are getting back together after being separated; in a scene in a tiki bar, she describes how she wants Ted to show more fight and determination to keep things together. Their life in Colorado, where they’re both college professors, is unsatisfying and they both want to move back to Chicago, even though they don’t agree why they left in the first place. Was it because they wanted to be near her nutcase family?
When Laura is killed suddenly in a freak accident on a mountain road, Ted wants to take her ashes back to Chicago. But first he has to get the ashes away from her family, who are determined she belongs there—at the well on the family property. Those ashes go back and forth a few times and Ted ends up with them in a pink cosmetic case. He might have succeeded in getting away with the ashes but he steals the red pickup truck owned by Howl (Javier Munoz, Hamilton, Blindspot, Shadow Vaults), who is hilarious as Ted’s antagonist, the man who loved Laura but didn’t win her. (Her family preferred Howl to college professor Ted.)
That’s where we meet a cast of Chicago actors, some of whom we glimpse only briefly. There’s Momma, who presides over the ashes ceremony at the well (Kathy Scambiaterra, artistic director of The Artistic Home, Into the Wake, “Chicago P.D.”); Percy, who prays over the ashes (Bill McGough, whose credits include Lyric Opera, Court Theatre, the Hypocrites and many more); and Grant, a cop and family friend (Keith Kupferer, The Great Leap, The Cake, Widows, The Road to Perdition, “The Chi.”). Richard Cotovsky (American Buffalo) has a cameo as a bartender and David Pasquesi (“Veep,” Groundhog Day) appears for about a minute as the proprietor of a garage on the highway in Iowa (or maybe it’s Nebraska). However, Joel Murray (“Mike and Molly,” “Two and a Half Men,” “Mad Men”) has a juicy cameo as security manager at the Field Museum. He’s been tipped off to Ted’s mission and is determined it won’t happen. Though he does allow Ted to stop for a few minutes to get a green dinosaur made at the Moldarama.
Throughout the film, the deceased Laura keeps appearing to Ted in physical form; they converse, share affectionate moments—and she gives advice on ash disposal. (I found this only slightly unlikely, having experienced something similar—but not as concrete—after a close relative was killed in a car accident. I assumed she wasn’t ready to die and was leaving me messages.)
Monuments has easy laughs and a bit of charm—and if you’re a Chicagoan past or present, you’ll enjoy the Field Museum scenes in the last third of the 94-minute film. Sullivan is a classic unkempt college professor; his classroom scenes show him obsessed with death and its representation in ancient civilizations and monuments. At the end of one classroom scene, he says, “Death is not the end, but a brief pause on the journey.”
Despite his goal of providing a proper ending for his wife’s life, Sullivan’s Ted doesn’t show any underlying grief. He just seems like a guy shambling along on a road trip, dealing with the odd people and incidents along the way. He meets a beautiful woman in a bar, gives her a symbolic quarter for the jukebox, and dances with her to the 1946 hit, “You Always Hurt the One You Love” by Spike Jones and the City Slickers. There are shadow puppets on an outdoor movie screen. And three women dressed in white pick up hitchhiking Ted (and Laura) in their van and sing all their dialogue.
The cinematography by Stephanie Dufford features gorgeous mountain and highway scenes. The film’s time chronology is episodic, with film editing to match (by David Burkart), which keeps the pace lively in a story that might otherwise seem too measured. The jangly soundtrack by Nick Takenobu is a terrific addition to the landscape.
Monuments is being streamed now by the Gene Siskel Film Center.
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