It’s 2023: Streaming has become the dominant form of mass culture consumption, handheld Internet access is ubiquitous, the rich have gained total hegemony over American society, and super sleuth and world-class neurotic Adrian Monk (the inimitable Tony Shalhoub) is considering suicide. After solving his wife Trudy’s murder — it was Craig T. Nelson — he was, as former assistant Natalie (Traylor Howard) says, “functioning.” Imagine that, Monk functioning! Then Covid hit, and the world was hurled into calamity. Now, he has survived the pandemic, having been cared for by Trudy’s affable, attentive daughter, Molly (Caitlin McGee), and is again a shambles, same full-buttoned jacket over a new shirt, black coils of hair now tinged white. He has hung up his detective hat and turned his attention toward writing. But after 10 years of fruitless toiling, he has failed to deliver his manuscript on his myriad gumshoe experiences, instead turning in a fat stack of digressions on the minutiae of vacuum cleaners, and now must return the advance he was going to spend on Molly’s wedding. In entertaining the powerful persuasions of suicide, staring out of a window at the publisher’s office and down at the welcoming street and its tiny anonymous dots of people, actually going as far as opening the window before the lovely specter of his beloved saves him, he has reached the inevitable emergency of the soul that has been there since his wife was blown to smithereens in a parking garage. This is the heart of the movie — not the requisite murder mystery or the familiar “Here’s what happened,” but this profound malaise. Reminders of death and the fleeting futility of life are everywhere.
Soon, a dastardly gazillionaire (James Purefoy, the Poe-obsessed cult leader of The Following) has Molly’s journalist fiance killed the day before their wedding, and caring deeply for the bereaved girl, Monk comes out of retirement. The gang gets back together, each of them now a decade older but the same motley crew. Randy (Jason Gray-Stanford) isn’t quite as dopey, but Stottlemeyer (the great Ted Levine) gets in a good joke about his musical aspirations (The Randy Disher Project), and the lovable loon presents one of his theories, and a doozy at that, involving legos and another far-fetched hypothesis. Sharona appears briefly in a clip from the beginning of the show, a nice if too-little nod to Mr. Monk’s first assistant (this writer is Team Sharona).
Mr. Monk’s Last Case is a work of love made for fans, but refuses to stay shackled to the demands of its sizable mainstream fandom. It’s darker than expected, in a very appealing way. It has that harmless TV feeling at times, appropriate for the source material, but with cinematic flourishes of form and aesthetic. The tragic bungee jump scene is formally exciting in a way the show wasn’t, with decent editing and pacing — you know what’s going to happen, but they keep prolonging it. (The splat sound when they cut Network TV-like from the violence is memorable.) The film is likewise more sophisticated in regards to its political and social consciousness, whereas the apolitical show made a point to skirt sensitive issues.
The sincerity of Last Case, which aspires admirably to be more than just comfort viewing, is most obviously exemplified by the scene with Jacques-Louis David’s massive 1787 painting The Death of Socrates. A crestfallen Monk gazes at the great work, at the tragic men with cut cores and pale faces and fabric draped flowingly over expressive bodies as a chalice is passed from a lachrymose man to one of authority pointing up with one finger, but not straight up, at a slant. Monk raises his finger, ponders the angle, and we see how a man of his afflictions and burdened with genius sees art. He isn’t uncomfortable. The series was always at its best during its emotional moments, when it was more drama than comedy. Sure, the scene where he cries with Dr. Bell (Hector Elizondo, still kicking at 86) is included for fans, but packs an unexpectedly poignant punch nonetheless. And then there’s a dog stricken with many maladies, one who displays Monkish tendencies and also, like the man, is facing death — does a dog have hope? Last Case surprises by leaning more toward seriousness than did the show’s silly sense of humor… and then Mr. Monk steps in a fresh swirly of dog poop — in close-up.
DIRECTOR: Randy Zisk; CAST: Tony Shaloub, Melora Hardin, Ted Levine; DISTRIBUTOR: Peacock; STREAMING: December 8; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 37 min.