by Ray Pride

Drawing distantly on the conceits of Fantastic Voyage, that lumbering 1966 science-fiction chestnut, as well as 1987's Innerspace, we once again find ourselves in the innards of man: break us down to the molecular level, and what do we find?

In the case of Osmosis Jones, very little of the spiritual and very much of the slapstick. A combination of live-action and animation, the result is more schizophrenic than it should be. In the inner world animated by Piet Kroon and Tom Sito, wonders await: the City of Frank -- from the brain to the belly to the ingrown toenail -- is a place of wonders and puns. Outside, Peter and Bobby Farrelly direct, and the result is blunders and pus. Working more from the spleen than the funnybone, the Farrellys wreck the genuine good cheer of Marc Hyman's clever script.

Zookeeper Frank, a grizzled widower with a winsome, yet humorless and chastising young daughter, is embodied by Bill Murray, and he's the most unappetizing loser in a family film in many a moon. That is, unless you count his shockingly disgusting and unfunny sidekick, played by Farrelly regular Chris Elliott (There's Something About Mary), who's content to hide under a horse's-ass fright wig, behind a fat, cheap cigar, and let it all hang out in a few scenes that show all too much of his flabby skin.

The dung-drab widescreen images of Murray eating junk food and acting like a general lout stand in stark contrast to the stylish, luscious animation. (Don't even get me started on the hideous scenes with a screeching Molly Shannon as Frank's daughter's teacher--she gets projectile-vomited upon and has one of Frank's zits slathered on her lower lip, but it's still insufficient punishment for how bad she is.)

But open your eyes in the City of Frank: a bursting, bustling place of wondrous, undulating crimson, high-rises and highways, lorded over by a venal mayor, filled with gangsters in the sauna that is Frank's armpit, and the body's most diligent cop, Osmosis Jones (Chris Rock). Aided by a Robocop-like cold tablet named Drix (David Hyde Pierce), Jones battles the potential outbreak of anthrax that Frank was exposed to after battling a chimp for a hard-boiled egg (the lovely and romantic opening scene of the picture).

As voiced by Laurence Fishburne, Thrax is a silken baddie, and the end-over-end chase scenes along highways and skyways and airports and dirty rotten slums inside Frank are a true joy. There are little jokes littering every frame, such as the gang graffiti that's scrawled on a wall near the liver: "Turds." And of course, what do you say as your curtain line to a criminal? "Virus con dios!" There's even a lovely near-apocalypse that sends up Titanic, both the film and the doomed boat. And what to do when rules need to be broken? "We'll go down to the hemorrhoids and get you a good lawyer!" The jokes are only lightly vulgar, and mostly an endlessly inventive roster (as the MPAA rating calls it) of "Bodily Humor."

When we return to live action, Murray's every lazy moment is to be dreaded. The trailer for the Farrellys' fall comedy, Shallow Hal, is one of the cleverest and funniest things I've seen in weeks. But as for their Frank? Murray has said that the animated portion of the film was done when he came on board, and that the Farrellys, once hired, expanded the live-action material in their style, in collaboration with Hyman. In the press kit, Murray bloviates, "As good as the animated stuff is, and it is, it's the human element of Frank that keeps people involved emotionally."

Actually, it's the human element that will keep people running out, either for concessions or to barf: one scene of ass-scratching -- that lovely opening once more -- is enough to start the head-scratching. It'd be swell if the eventual DVD edition allows programming to skip over all the inhumane humanity and go directly to the microscopic meat. Kroon, storyboard artist on The Iron Giant, and Sito, who has worked on movies such as Shrek, Antz and Who Framed Roger Rabbit? deserve all the glory they'll get. Even if Osmosis Jones fails to satisfy a late summer family audience sated on five viewings of Shrek, their work is sleek and eye-popping enough -- not to mention beautifully shaped as comedy. My advice? Ignore the man; it's his innards that count.

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