The Theory of Chaos

Thursday, January 31, 2008

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - The Simpsons Movie

Originally published 8/12/07
Full review behind the jump

The Simpsons Movie

: David Silverman
: Screenplay by James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean, Ian Maxtone-Graham, George Meyer, David Mirkin, Mike Reiss, Mike Scully, Matt Selman, John Swartzwelder, Jon Vitti, based on the cartoon series created by Matt Groening and developed by Matt Groening, James L. Brooks, and Sam Simon
: James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean, Richard Sakai, Mike Scully
Featuring the vocal talents of
: Dan Castellaneta, Julie Kavner, Nancy Cartwright, Yeardley Smith, Harry Shearer, Hank Azaria, Albert Brooks, Marcia Wallace, Tress MacNeille, Pamela Hayden, Russi Taylor, Karl Weirdergott, Maggie Roswell

It’s startling, now, to look back on the first season of
The Simpsons on television, with its crude animation and half-developed characters. This is what became one of the most enduring institutions in American popular culture? Back then, the problems the family encountered felt relatively grounded and authentic, and grew out of their lower-middle-class suburban world. Back then, Dan Castellaneta’s vocal performance as family patriarch Homer was little more than a Walter Matthau impersonation, right down to the way he answered the phone (“mmmmMYELLO?”) And back then, small-town schools sought to ban Simpsons T-shirts, because of one on which trouble-making pre-teen hooligan Bart Simpson mouthed the society-threatening phrase “I’m an underachiever and proud of it.

Both America and
The Simpsons have come a long way in 18 years; and it has been a study in how difficult it is for satire to stay ahead of a culture so determined to continue its downward trajectory. But just like Castellaneta’s Homer evolved through his inarticulate exclamations: “Whoo-hoo!”, “Mmmmmm…”, and the immortal “D’oh!” into a fully-realized ambassador of our deliriously anti-intellectual, attention-deficit, gratification-addicted times, the writers of The Simpsons have mastered a kind of fast food satire, which has through persistent smarts and unsparing mockery accumulated in hundreds of single-serving 22-minute chunks to create a moving portrait of American life that will do more to teach future generations about what we were than any sociology text.

In a way,
The Simpsons Movie is as accurately-titled an experience at the multiplex as you’ll get this year. It is no more or less than The Simpsons, Matt Groening’s yellow-hued small-town Everyfamily, transitioning their routine to the big screen with all their virtues intact. If I were a lazier man I could end the review right there, because you are going to get what you get on the small-screen in a high-quality Simpsons episode, only with a quadruple-sized running time, some pleasing flourishes of scale made possible by the bigger canvas and budget, and a few choice exploitations of a PG-13 rating. But despite that I was a schoolchild suffering the insidious influence of that Bart Simpson T-shirt during its heyday, I shall not underachieve.

The script is the work of an all-star team of Simpsons writers, many of them veterans of the show’s heyday (encompassing, depending on whom you ask, roughly the third through eighth seasons, give or take), and the gags have a crisp pace and high hit-percentage worthy of that period. You could stand it against any favorite episode.

The story involves Homer creating an environmental catastrophe, which results in the whole town of Springfield being imprisoned inside a giant protective dome by corrupt government bureaucrat Russ Cargill (Albert Brooks). This serves as an elegant springboard into a fast-paced and consistently hilarious examination of just what Springfield, as we’ve come to understand it, is.

This little town, which according to the movie borders “Ohio, Nevada, Maine, and Kentucky”, and encompasses mountains, lakes, deserts, and the famous Springfield Gorge (they never did clean up that wrecked ambulance), which seems to grow and change layout and geography according to the needs of the ongoing study of humanity like the metropolis in Dark City, is nothing less than the brightly-painted amusement park caricature of our own collected excesses and vices. It is the inevitable end product of the forces that jab alternately at the fear and pleasure centers of our brain and then, while we’re drooling with delight, goes after our wallet and our freedom. It sees us as the fattened chattel of those who profit off giving us things that feel good and are really, really bad for us, like beverage companies and the Republican Party. It is awed by our ability to be outright hostile to good sense (when eternal do-gooder Lisa Simpson urges the town’s leaders to fight the dumping in the perilously-filthy lake, the newspaper headline reads “Annoying Girl Nags Town”).

But The Simpsons would never have staying power if they stooped to pedanticism, they happen to think the products of this culture are too cool and amazing to outright condemn. With all the fervency it mocks it also admires and celebrates; we produce such colors and varieties of madness in this great big country, and The Simpsons loves them all, and still professes a belief that, when it counts, we’ll try to do the right thing. With so many forces squeezing us towards mediocrity, we’ll still try to achieve greatness because that’s the dream we bought and we don’t have buyer’s remorse. As much of an irresponsible boob as Homer can be (and the movie provides him plenty of opportunities), he still loves his family, and will fight heroically through all the static life has injected into his brain to be there for them.

At the end of the day you cannot cut off Springfield with a dome, or leave it as the Simpson family tries to do when Homer is exiled by an angry mob. I think the reason why Homer inspires more angry mobs than any other resident of Springfield is that he is their citizen exemplar, the loudest and most delighted cow in the pasture. He isn’t just another passively-corrupted consumer, he’s enthused about his idiocy. To paraphrase a line from The Lord of the Rings - they love and hate him as they love and hate themselves. America cannot be without Springfield, and Springfield cannot be without Homer Simpson.

The filmmakers show a masterful sense for balance, letting the core family unit and their story hold the momentum of the plot and provide some poignant struggles (the greatest achievement of any American family is to keep working it out day by day), while still cramming two decades’ accumulation of supporting characters and background gags in around them. Merely listing the familiar faces from Springfield’s extended population would take up more space than the “Begat” section in the Book of Genesis, and to quibble over their assorted seconds of allotted screen time is a mug’s game. Everyone will get a moment or two with a favorite character.

I almost wish that The Simpsons had wrapped up its television run years ago – you can sense the exhaustion these days of whipping up new wacky scenarios, wedging in more celebrity guest stars, and fighting for viewer eyeballs against rip-off artists like Family Guy and the perpetual encroachment by the network into their own time with more commercials, more advertising messages and logos scrolling along the bottom of the screen. On the big screen, The Simpsons Movie fairly bursts with a refreshed sense of possibility and freedom. It is Song of Myself in whoopee cushion form, a dazzling roast of America by America, and in aiming its lovingly-poisoned arrows, it’s an over-achiever, and proud of it.


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