MR. MONK’S LAST CASE. The iconic detective is back – entirely unnecessarily

For every fan of the “Mr. Monk’s Last Case” series, it is, without a doubt, a significant cinematic event.

Jan Brzozowski

14 December 2023

Adrian Monk. It’s very possible that he was the first detective in my cinematic life. Before I watched Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr. or came across any of the television films about the adventures of Hercule Poirot (with the irreplaceable David Suchet), Detective Monk appeared on the screen in our family living room. He appeared regularly, but in a rather random order – dictated by a compromise between the schedule of the then TV lineup and the free time of my parents. When I started a thorough rewatch of the series a few months ago – intending to watch all eight seasons from start to finish – I discovered how many mysteries had permanently engraved themselves in my memory. Because in Detective Monk, as in any good crime series, the WHO was never the most important, but the HOW. We usually knew the culprit in the first minutes of the episode – in a short sequence preceding the opening credits. And since we knew, Adrian Monk quickly knew too, needing a motive and a short conversation with the suspect to determine the murderer’s identity. For the next forty minutes, the detective tried to figure out how the crime was committed – and we did too. That was the entire viewer’s pleasure.

“Mr. Monk’s Last Case” remains faithful to this pattern. As soon as Rick Eden (James Purefoy) – an exceptionally slick billionaire dreaming of private space flights – appears on the screen, we know heads are about to roll. However, before that, we see an old acquaintance. Although it’s hard to believe, more than 14 years have passed since the last episode of Detective Monk aired. During this time, much has changed in the world. From the main character’s perspective, the most important event was, of course, the pandemic. The coronavirus shook Adrian Monk’s internal calmness, acquired after the final explanation of his wife’s death. We meet the detective at a critical moment. His contract for an autobiographical novel has just been canceled, and the motivation to work – permanently paralyzed by post-pandemic trauma. The omnipresent malaise leads Monk to seriously consider suicide. He carefully counts the days on the calendar, counting down to joining his beloved Trudy. The hero’s “final journey” changes when someone from his circle of close acquaintances dies in a staged accident. Whether he likes it or not, Monk once again takes on the role of a detective to solve – as the title suggests – the last case of his career.

For every fan of the “Mr. Monk’s Last Case” series, it is, without a doubt, a significant cinematic event. The creators are well aware of this – that’s why from the very beginning, they activate a well-oiled fan service machine. The detective meets the most important people from his past after years – on the screen, we see, among others, his former assistant Natalie (Traylor Howard), Lieutenant Disher (Jason Gray-Stanford), and Captain Stottlemeyer (Ted Levine). Importantly: all meetings have a bittersweet character. And it’s not just that we see how much the characters from our childhood have aged (and we have aged with them). It is mainly about the fact that the life of each character has clearly moved forward, while Monk’s life – devoid of the goal of catching his wife’s murderer – has come to a standstill. Natalie has become a real estate agent, Disher is fulfilling himself as a police commissioner in New Jersey, and Stottlemeyer spends his retirement as the head of security at Rick Eden’s company. The last character’s place of employment causes an interesting ethical conflict and leads to arguably the best dialogue scene in the entire film. Stottlemeyer – once a tough cop, now barely standing on his feet as a grandfather – tries to convince Monk that Eden is not the murderer sought by the detective. When Monk asks why, he hears a loud reply: “Because I love my job!” The tough life in the police ranks has brought the former captain to a prestigious position, which he currently holds and will undoubtedly lose if his employer goes to jail for murder. The entire conversation is shot in one slow zoom, and aesthetically stands out against the television quality of the rest of the film.

Of course: where there’s Monk, there’s humor. Jokes have always been the anchor and obligatory point of the series created by Andy Breckman. The driving force of humor was often the character himself: the neurotic detective, battling with obsessive-compulsive disorder and various, increasingly elaborate phobias. Each episode meant not only another criminal case but also another duel of the main character with himself – for the viewer to get the desired happy ending, Monk had to emerge victorious from both of these struggles, with the second one usually being much more demanding. “Mr. Monk’s Last Case” operates on the basis of a twin concept, but it does not execute it with the same care and precision as the best episodes of the series. Jokes based on the coronavirus pandemic are, as you might guess, in the case of a character like Monk, a scripted cliché. When the topic of pandemic absurdities is already exploited, Breckman begins to lack the comedic fuel that was once provided to him in wholesale quantities by numerous co-writers. Subsequent jokes seem increasingly stretched and strained – a noble exception is a genuinely funny joke related to LEGO blocks.

Humorous shortcomings could still be forgiven if the intrigue were brilliant and the action gripping – but that did not happen. The complexity of most mysteries from 45-minute episodes of the series surpasses that which, at least in theory, was supposed to sustain a 90-minute format. Monk’s spy disguises do not provide the desired thrill, and the accompanying gags cause more involuntary facial grimaces than genuine smiles. The entire, crucial criminal plot seems written hastily and perfunctorily – just to fit into the commendable but slowly fading trend of satires aimed at moral bankruptcies with millions in their accounts. Almost every element of the film, very loudly and clearly, tells us during the screening that it is only a pretext. A pretext to return to the iconic character and give him a chance for one more farewell, while also making some money and gaining a few new subscribers for the still relatively fresh Peacock platform.

So it’s really not surprising in this context that Breckman repeatedly strikes not so much nostalgic as openly, shamelessly sentimental tones. However, he does it falsely and clumsily. The thread of conversations with Trudy’s ghost can still be tolerated – I myself rolled my eyes every time he appeared in the series, but right after that, my pupils dilated at the sight of the further course of the plot. In “Mr. Monk’s Last Case,” it is mercilessly stretched and painfully regular, finding its culmination in a terribly kitschy, quasi-metaphysical finale, in which the hero is visited by the spirits of the victims of all the crimes he solved over the course of his rich detective career.

When the next extras in white suits, deceptively resembling angels from a new BMW ad, paraded across the screen, I thought that Adrian Monk deserved something much better. Maybe a simpler, strictly COVID-themed special episode? Perhaps a decent theatrical film, with a larger budget and a few more screenwriters? “Mr. Monk’s Last Case” is something in between: a cheap streaming product intended to work on dedicated fans like flypaper. “Once, the name Monk meant something, and now…” – says the prospective publisher of the hero’s autobiography at the beginning of the session. And these are prophetic words. Once it was associated with a great series – from now on, it will be associated with a great series and a mediocre film.

Janek Brzozowski

Jan Brzozowski

Permanently sleep-deprived, as he absorbs either westerns or new adventure cinema at night. A big fan of the acting skills of James Dean and Jimmy Stewart, and the beauty of Ryan Gosling and Elle Fanning. He is also interested in American and French literature, as well as soccer.

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