Like Michael Dukakis when he was photographed in a tank radiating all the studly presidential command of Rocket J. Squirrel, movie actors who star opposite a member of the ape family risk doing permanent damage to their images. There are exceptions, of course. Sigourney Weaver had a taciturn nobility in Gorillas in the Mist, and it was one of Clint Eastwood’s cannier moves to team himself with a lovable orangutan in Every Which Way But Loose; the goo-goo-eyed beast humanized Eastwood, coaxing a layer of cutesy self-mockery from a star who, up until then, had been most celebrated for his on-screen romance with a .44 magnum. Still, think of Ronald Reagan in Bedtime for Bonzo, Matthew Broderick in Project X, or, more recently, Matt LeBlanc in Ed. In each case, the debasing implication is that the actor in question isn’t quite up to having a human costar. He’s spending his day in the doghouse (or, in this case, the ape cage).

Given all that, I have no idea why Rene Russo, having sparred so winningly with that higher primate Kevin Costner in last summer’s Tin Cup, chose this moment in her career to star in Buddy. Thrusting out her beautiful chin with aristocratic hauteur, Russo plays Gertrude ”Trudy” Lintz, the New York socialite of the ’20s and ’30s who made a notorious eccentric of herself by sharing her upstate mansion with a menagerie large enough to stock a small zoo. Trudy’s favorite ”child” is Buddy, a sickly baby gorilla who grows up to become a great big hulking gorilla. That, of course, doesn’t stop her from dressing him in a striped vest and treating him as if he were a slightly clumsy butler.

Produced by Jim Henson Pictures, Buddy features state-of-the-art animatronic effects, even if Russo, for most of the film, is acting opposite that dazzling technological innovation known as…a man in a gorilla suit. There are moments of batty charm, as when Buddy waddles into the living room proffering a tray of deviled eggs or innocently crushes an elegant dining-table chair. Yet Buddy’s awkward humanization is mostly played for slapstick obviousness. Russo’s performance, while likable enough, has one thin layer — she prattles on eagerly, oblivious to the fact that a creature like Buddy can’t be civilized. By the time he shows his true, wild colors, all the irony has been crushed as well. C+

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