Monday, August 15, 2016

Review: Sausage Party (2016)

Sausage Party (2016)

Rated R for strong crude sexual content, pervasive language, and drug use

Score: 4 out of 5

Since it happened in my theater, I am going to give this warning right now: do not, I repeat, do not bring your kids to see this movie. Yes, it's animated. Yes, it deliberately apes the CG visual style of Pixar, DreamWorks, and modern Disney, right down to one of its directors having worked on the Shrek films. However, if anime, Adult Swim, South Park, and Beavis & Butt-head have taught us anything in the last twenty-five years, it's that animated works can be just as violent and sexually graphic as any live-action films. Parents, pay attention to the giant R rating that has been prominently plastered on the trailers: this film was written by the team of Seth Rogen (who also does the voice of the protagonist) and Evan Goldberg, who previously collaborated on writing the raunchy comedies SuperbadPineapple ExpressThis Is the End, and The Interview, and the content here is just about what you would expect from those two in terms of sex jokes, stoner gags, and ethnic humor. Hell, just look at that poster up there, a thinly-veiled reference to a penis entering a vagina.

And yet, for some reason, I heard a baby crying in the theater during this film. Some folks just don't seem to get it.

Anyway, now that that warning is out of the way, I can get to my actual review: Sausage Party is a blast. It pushes against all boundaries of good taste as it mercilessly skewers the tropes of modern animated films, it has some surprisingly intelligent and nuanced commentary on religion given its subject matter, and it manages the rare feat of being un-PC without being simply offensive or mean-spirited. It has its weaknesses, particularly with a dull villain who seems to have no reason to be around except to drive the characters forward, but overall, this is, hands down, a rival to Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping as one of the funniest movies I've seen not just this year, but this decade. I laughed myself sick watching this film, as it kept raising the bar to ever-more-outrageous heights.

The film starts out with a stock premise for an animated film: what if the assorted animals and objects around you were alive and sentient? In the past, this premise has been applied to sea life in Finding Nemo, toys in Toy Story, insects in A Bug's Life, and household pets in The Secret Life of Pets, and here in Sausage Party, it's applied to food and other consumer goods. The idea is that the food items living on the shelves of the supermarket worship the human shoppers and employees as gods, and eagerly anticipate being taken to the "Great Beyond" where they will live in paradise. Two food items that are getting ready to be "chosen" on "Red, White, & Blue Day" are a hot dog named Frank (Seth Rogen) and his girlfriend, a hot dog bun named Brenda (Kristen Wiig) who he can't wait to be "inserted into" in the Great Beyond, a feeling that Brenda reciprocates. Sure enough, the two are chosen... but once in the shopping cart, they meet a bottle of honey mustard (Danny McBride) who had been returned to the store, and is telling anybody who will listen that the Great Beyond, far from the heaven they've been told about, is in fact a nightmare realm where they go to be tortured and consumed by their ravenous "gods". Thanks to a mishap that requires a cleanup on aisle 2, Frank and Brenda find themselves tossed from the cart and on their own in the supermarket, and must find their way back to their home aisle, acquiring help from a number of other food items on the way -- a bickering bagel and lavash (Edward Norton and David Krumholtz) who constantly argue over who colonized whose shelf space, a taco (Salma Hayek) who's attracted to Brenda, and a liquor bottle shaman (Bill Hader) who teaches Frank that maybe that bottle of honey mustard was right about what their fate actually entails. Meanwhile, Barry (Michael Cera) and Carl (Jonah Hill), two of Frank's fellow hot dogs, discover the truth about what happens to food in the Great Beyond, and fight to get back to the store and warn everybody, along the way crossing paths with a stoner (James Franco) and the assorted munchies in his house.

The journeys of the main characters are essentially the sort of thing that Blazing Saddles-era Mel Brooks would've made had he seen a modern Pixar film or two. The aisles are loaded with food-based ethnic stereotypes, most notably with the bagel and lavash that act as an obvious stand-in for the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also with takes on all the assorted food items that inhabit the "ethnic foods" sections of your local supermarket. It's a fine line to tread without becoming very unfunny in a heartbeat, and one that many lesser comedians often slip over in attempts to be "edgy", but Rogen and Goldberg nail the balancing act by creating actual characters out of them. Teresa del Taco isn't just Mexican, she's also a parody of the bi-curious sex bomb, one that works without becoming the thing it's mocking because all the visual shorthand that's applied to that sort of character is given here to a blatantly un-sexy taco. Sammy Bagel, Jr. and Kareem Abdul Lavash realize that they have common ground in the fact that they both go great with hummus, but that doesn't fully fix the underlying tension between them and their communities. The Native American liquor bottle Firewater, along with the other "non-perishables", is used for far more than just a joke about an old Western trope...

...and with that, we get into the film's bigger theme. Above all else, Sausage Party is parodying organized religion, as is made evident in the opening musical number in which all of the items in the store sing about their desire to go to the Great Beyond. They've developed an entire religion around it, complete with all manner of rules designed to keep them "pure" (i.e. non-spoiled) so that they won't be tossed into the garbage, one that Firewater and the other non-perishables created so as keep them from learning the truth about what their gods have in store for them. Things got out of control from there, with the food now living in an artificial bliss that isn't backed by reality all the while splintering into all manner of bickering sects. That said, the folly of religion is simply the easy target this film goes after in the beginning; by the end, it's turned its commentary around at its real target, specifically the militant non-believers who probably do more to drive people back into church than any pastor could (and who probably make up a good share of this film's target audience). Frank's journey in the film is like that of many people who have freshly "deconverted" to atheism, as when he learns the truth from the source, he turns into an asshole in his quest to correct the falsehoods of his fellow foods. We know he's right about what's in store for them, and that their religion is built on falsehoods, but he picks the worst possible means to let everybody know, one that alienates him from Brenda and his friends and leaves him fighting alone against the darkness. The others may believe in lies, but they're comforting lies that prevent them from breaking down in tears in the face of the monsters that await them, and when somebody shouts in their face that they're wrong, they're more inclined to cling harder to that security blanket than abandon it, if only to spite that asshole. Frank's journey involves him coming to realize that there's a better way to get people to stop believing in their gods than just insulting their beliefs; instead of just tearing down the old ways, it's better to build up a new belief system, one that people would want to follow while being more grounded in reality, in its place. As a non-believer myself, trust me, I know full well about this process, having seen it in myself in the past and in certain corners of the internet today.

But enough about heady topics like religion that it's so hard to calmly discuss on the internet. Let's get into the real meat and potatoes: is this film funny? Well, if you have nerves of steel and can take some shocking imagery, then absolutely. Rogen and Goldberg constantly find new heights to climb and depths to plumb in their search for laughs, taking advantage of the things they can do in an animated medium that aren't physically possible in live action. The ethnic and sexual humor is just the tip of the iceberg; I can't mention half the jokes in this movie, partly because I don't want to spoil them but mainly because I don't feel comfortable even typing them out. During the third act, most of my big laughs -- and there were many -- were preceded by my jaw hitting the floor in amazement that this film wasn't rated NC-17. It's shock humor that actually shocks, mainly because it doesn't chicken out; it goes exactly where you think it's going, and then just keeps going from there until it reaches climax both literally and figuratively.

There was one element, however, that I didn't like, and that was the attempt to shoehorn a conventional villain into the film. Nick Kroll's character, Douche, is, well, a douche (as in, the feminine hygiene product) who blames Frank and Brenda for him getting knocked out of the cart and denied a chance to enter the Great Beyond, and relentlessly pursues them in his quest for revenge. I get that this wasn't a particularly long movie, but Douche seemed to have no relationship to the main characters' journey except to provide an obstacle to them. Furthermore, he's a very one-note douchebag, whose scenes mostly consist of him either sucking the fluid from juice boxes and wine bottles and then saying he's "jacked up, bro", or making sexual remarks that come across as more creepy than funny. He exists mainly for the "douchebag" pun, and there's little to his character beyond an alpha-male fratbro rapist who gets old fast. He should've been either cut down and relegated to a single scene, or given some more development as a character beyond that.

The Bottom Line:

It may not be Rogen and Goldberg's greatest movie, but it's definitely in their upper echelon of hilarious comedies. Remember to steel yourself beforehand for some fucked-up shit (and do not bring your kids), and you will have an absolute blast that maybe, just maybe, might make you think about the meaning of life.

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