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Monk was the series that got me interested in the mystery genre. Before I watched it I had a biased assumption that detective fiction was all dry and formulaic: crime is committed, detective investigates, finds evidence, arrests criminal, case closed. But when I checked out an episode of Monk on a whim one night in college, I realized how wrong I was. I can’t remember the exact episode, but I recall being intrigued throughout the entire runtime, so I kept coming back to it, watching the new episodes as they aired and checking out the previous ones when they were re-run. It showed me just how creative writers can get with mysteries: seemingly impossible murders, perfect alibies, bizarre motives or clues that appear meaningless. It was chaotic, yet Adrian Monk, a man with severe OCD, was able to bring order. It also showed that detective stories could have humor and heart. My interest in the show got me to follow some of the successive series that were created to capitalize on its popularity with quirky detectives like Psych and The Mentalist, and from there the classics of the genre including the works of Agatha Christie, Ellery Queen, and John Dickson Carr.
When the series ended in 2009 I was a bit disappointed but still happy that everything was wrapped up well. And it was continuing in a series of tie-in novels written by Lee Goldberg and Hy Conrad, so there were still new adventures for Monk and his friends. But then the novels stopped, and it seemed that was it. Until early 2023 when it was announced that a reunion movie was in the works, presumably inspired by the success of the Psych movies. Needless to say I was hyped and eagerly awaited its debut. I checked it out when it released and can honestly say that Mr. Monk’s Last Case is a welcome return for fans of the defective detective.
(Content Warning: discussions of self harm and suicide)
Adrian Monk has not fared well in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The viral outbreak triggered his already severe mysophobia to such a degree that he’s regressed to a state similar to that following his wife Trudy’s murder, too afraid to deal with the outside world. Compounding his issues is the fear that he’s no longer relevant in modern society: his friends have all moved on to other careers and new lives and he no longer assists the San Francisco police with homicide investigations. The only stabilizing figure in his life is his stepdaughter Molly Evans (Trudy’s daughter) who helped to care for him during the pandemic and will soon be getting married. Her fiancé, Griffin Briggs, is a reporter currently working on a story about tech billionaire Rick Eden. Eden has a number of skeletons in his closet, namely one concerning the mysterious death of his former business partner and allegations that witnesses were paid off to claim it was accidental. The mogul tries to bribe Griffin to drop the story, but he has too much integrity to accept the deal, a decision which ultimately proves fatal. The day before the wedding Griffin dies in what appears to be a horrible accident, though Molly insists that he was murdered. She turns to Monk for help in uncovering the truth, though the toll of his personal demons may make this one of the most difficult cases he’s ever had to crack.
While the original series was much more of a dramatic comedy with a heavy leaning into humor, the movie veers far in the other direction tonally. It’s quite somber with a number of tragic moments. Molly’s reactions when she learns Griffin’s dead and her pouring out her sorrow to Monk are especially impactful as it shows the pained connection between the two, both having to suffer the loss of someone they loved and planned to spend the rest of their lives with. Even outside of the investigation there’s a prevalent gloomy atmosphere surrounding Monk. He’s clearly struggling to adapt to a post-pandemic world, like a great number of people are. His sullen, withdrawn nature has him walking through scenes like a man desperately seeking meaning, to the point where even reuniting with old friends can’t lift his spirits. You honestly feel bad for him. It even seemed like much of the movie was filmed with a muted color filter so it would come across as bleaker, not to mention the melancholy Randy Newman song that plays when Monk is at his lowest point.
There is another reason for the darker tone that’s brought up fairly early, and it’s related to the most shocking change in Monk’s personality – Adrian is suicidal. All the stresses he’s dealt with over the years have convinced him that life is pointless. He’s alone and feels irrelevant. A publisher who rejects his memoirs flat out tells him at the start “The name Adrian Monk used to mean something. It’s a different world now; everyone’s moved on.” But for a man who obsessively thrives on routine, moving on is close to impossible, and why he thinks that ending his life would be the easier decision. It’s why he’s so reluctant to help the police with new cases or go along with any long-term plans his friends suggest, because he doubts he’ll still be around when that happens. Even when he finally agrees to help Molly investigate Griffin’s death he treats it more as a final obligation he needs to clear up rather than seeing it as an opportunity to prove his worth. The only thing staying his hand are visions of Trudy trying to convince him that it isn’t the answer. There’s some ambiguity about whether these are simply hallucinations or if her spirit really is communicating with him, though the second option is more heavily hinted at in an ending scene that I won’t spoil but I will admit got me teary-eyed, something I never expected from a Monk reunion movie.
That’s not to say the movie is completely devoid of humor. There are still a few amusing moments, a good number stemming from Adrian’s neuroses and compulsions. Some that stood out were when he had to flip one light switch in a row to make it line up with the others, knowing full well that it would turn the lights on and give his location away to a pursuer, or when he tries to stop a man carrying a bomb in a package but ends up stepping in dog crap and writhes in pain as though he was the one caught in the explosion. His grim outlook on what he sees as his remaining days also cause him to interject a bit of gallows humor into his conversation, though that can be seen as more uncomfortable to others given the previous mentions of suicide. We even see Stottlemeyer pull an amusing prank on Randy when they reunite. However, there were a couple of scenes that were clearly trying to be funny but ended up stretching out the joke for too long to the point of padding, like when Natalie attempts a three-point turn on a narrow street and keeps bumping into parked cars, or Monk posing as a bartender at one of Eden’s parties and is constantly throwing away limes and garnishes for not meeting his standards.
In terms of the mystery, it’s a fairly good inverted detective story like most of the episodes were. From the start viewers know that Eden is responsible for killing Griffin; what keeps them engaged is following Monk as he investigates and finds the evidence needed to prove it. Most of the clues are fairly laid out and can be picked up on even before Monk becomes aware of them, while those he uncovers that weren’t seen before help shape his train of thought in a logical manner rather than making wild leaps. Even before he has the final revelation that lets him piece everything together, a keen watcher will have likely figured out the solution. Some clues were rushed over though, in particular a note with a specific date and time on it that related to a smaller part of the case where Eden was trying to tie up loose ends, but this is a sacrifice that has to be made in visual media since the camera can’t just hover on a piece of paper for a prolonged amount of time without the risk of losing audience engagement, and since it doesn’t affect the denouement it can be forgiven.
Regarding the cast performances, Tony Shaloub steps back into the role of Monk like barely any time has passed. He still perfectly captures all of Adrian’s eccentricities: his social awkwardness, unintentional insensitivity, irrational fears, and self-loathing are all on display, possibly at an even greater degree. To some it may feel like Flanderization given his development over the series, but as mentioned in-universe the pandemic took a toll on his mental health, and from a writer’s perspective I can understand wanting to have him return to a state fans would be more familiar with to ease them back in after a 14 year hiatus rather than give Monk a completely new personality. But we still see the character’s more positive traits emphasized, namely his powers of observation, analytical prowess, and commitment to justice. There’s a great scene where Monk flat out refuses a massive bribe from Eden to stop investigating because he wants to give Molly closure, and even gets in a physical confrontation with the billionaire to try and hold onto evidence that could convict him. For all his faults, he’s a good detective and a good person. I should also mention that given his suicidal tendencies he does regularly discuss how he’s planning to end it, but thankfully Shaloub’s performance never has it come across as insensitive to anyone who has considered self harm in the past and keeps the character sympathetic.
Of course Monk’s return meant bringing back the rest of the supporting cast as well, and in the lead-up to the movie I was wondering how they would be reintroduced, whether they would be given expanded stories to fill in the gap between the season finale and now or if they would carry on from their fates in the novels (Natalie becomes Monk’s partner in a P.I. firm, Randy is run out of Summit after accusing the mayor of murder, Stottlemeyer is still on the force.) As it turns out the novels are not canon and every character has moved on, yet is still familiar, and even though they don’t get as much screen time as Adrian they all still stand out. Traylor Howard retains Natalie Teeger’s compassion and enthusiasm, always there to help Monk when he needs it (or if necessary give him the push to do what has to be done). Jason Gray Stanford shows a more mature Randy Disher that demonstrates how competent he can be in an investigation unlike when he was often written as a fool for a comedy-heavy episode, though he still has his moments, notably when he floats another of his implausible theories as to how Eden could have carried out the murder. The most unexpected character shift was with Leland Stottlemeyer, portrayed by Ted Levine. He’s retired from the SFPD and is now working as the chief of security – for Rick Eden. Naturally this leads to a significant conflict between him and Monk as he’s got a great job with plenty of perks that allow him and his family to live a cushy lifestyle, and isn’t very keen on giving that up based on an accusation without proof. It might initially come off as wildly out of character, but when you look through the show’s history one of Stottlemeyer’s biggest flaws was too easily letting his emotions override common sense (like when he didn’t want to acknowledge the woman he was in love with was a murderer). But when he finds proof that his boss is connected with the murder, he becomes determined to help Monk and Molly bring him down, fancy job be damned. Like with Monk, he’s a flawed man who will ultimately do what is necessary to make sure justice is served.
As with Columbo, the best Monk episodes pitted him against a charismatic criminal who thought they were untouchable, and Rick Eden fits that part perfectly. Wealthy, arrogant, cunning, and callous, he sees other people as nothing but stepping stones to get what he wants and has no qualms about disposing of them if they pose a threat. James Purefoy does an exceptional job conveying all of Eden’s smug sliminess, switching from charismatic and affable to cold-hearted bloodlust, the kind of man who kills without any hesitation or guilt. I definitely think that having the character be an amalgamation of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk was intentional given how recent years have seen those two coming under heavy fire for their callous actions yet skirting any repercussions, so there’s a definite catharsis in watching someone clearly based on them actually punishment for their crimes. When he’s finally arrested you almost want the scene to drag on longer just to savor his humiliation more.
Regarding the supporting cast, the standout is Melora Hardin reprising her role as Adrian’s late wife Trudy. Even though she only interacts with him sporadically as an apparition, she conveys a genuine warmth and compassion for her husband as she gently tries to persuade him against going with his planned suicide. Hector Elizondo returns as Monk’s psychiatrist Dr. Bell, and while he has fewer scenes than Trudy he still manages to deliver some of the most emotional scenes, being the one person who can break through Adrian’s mental barriers to get him to open up while doing the same in return. It shows the deep respect the two have for each other that may have been glossed over in past encounters. Caitlin McGee and Austin Scott don’t get much to do as Molly and Griffin (justified in Austin’s case since his death is the inciting factor for the story) but from what we see of them they both come across as good people with strong moral compasses who you want to see avenged after Eden hurts them. Raven Dadua only gets a brief appearance as Captain Lisa Rudner, Stottlemeyer’s replacement, but from what I saw I’d honestly like a continuation of this story to see Monk’s new dynamic with her. Special mention also has to go to Richard Kind for his stint as a pair of eccentric twin funeral home directors, never coming across as too weird or morbid but still entertainingly odd.
Mr. Monk’s Last Case isn’t a perfect movie – it could have definitely used a bit more time to highlight some of the supporting cast and reworked a few scenes that dragged for too long. But it really is a welcome return for beloved characters whose presence is sorely missed in today’s media landscape. A nice throwback to when shows weren’t excessively dark and gritty or drenched with ironic meta-humor. Newcomers might have trouble adjusting to the tone, but hey, every season is available to stream, so it shouldn’t be that hard to get familiar with Monk and his crew. And it carries a message that everyone needs to hear now, especially considering how cold and hopeless things may seem. You can’t give up. Your life has purpose, there are people who care about you, and you can still accomplish great things with the time you have left. And if you can’t see the light in the darkness, don’t be afraid to ask for help.
If you or someone you now has been struggling with thoughts of suicide or self-harm, please call 988 or 1-800-273-8255.