August 21, 2016

'Sausage Party' Will Make You Want to Set Your Food Free

Sausage Party will make you want to set your food free—from yourself—and you may never eat dinner again without wondering if you're actually committing genocide. It's like The Muppets and Julia Child on acid. This is an animated movie for adults that portrays consumable goods—everything from hot dogs to cherry tomatoes to toilet paper to Jose Cuervo—as sentient beings, each of them brandishing skinny little arms and legs and able to communicate with each other. Every morning, as the supermarket opens, they perform a musical number hastening the arrival of “the gods” (that’s us), each of them hoping she or he will be chosen. To be chosen is to be bought, and taken to “The Great Beyond.” Nobody knows what that means, but everyone assumes it’s a good thing, a wonderful, magical, eternally blissful thing. Of course, reality, which the grocery store’s inhabitants will learn, is far more horrifying. The film’s message is clear: religion is the opiate of the masses, the thing that those in power use to control us. And the writers—Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Kyle Hunter, and Ariel Shaffir—have crafted a canny, lucid thesis in defense of skepticism. Sausage Party is funny— sometimes uproariously funny—and surprisingly transcendent: at times, the gags (the film is ladled with jokes like a pot roast steeped in its own gravy) and the bleakness of the film’s message (there is no god, there is only the here and now) converge into a chaos of beautiful insanity. 

But the writers’ thesis-driven approach to comedy feels far too self-satisfied. It would be like if Blazing Saddles were trying to be Roots. In Blazing Saddles, which is one of the most important anti-racism films of the 1970s, the racists were idiots, and we were free to infer for ourselves just how wrong racism really is. Sausage Party, were it made in the 1970s, might be free to let us do some thinking on our own. But sadly it’s mired in message like a kindergarten class. And while I admire the film’s honesty, what I enjoy and delight in is its insanity, and Sausage Party often cannot do both at once. 

Here’s an example of insanity: Barry (voice of Michael Cera), a sausage, narrowly avoids being boiled to death in a woman’s kitchen; he escapes and ends up in the home of a 20-something stoner with crazy curly hair who, once he’s injected himself with bath salts, can see that all his food products are living creatures. (Normally, humans cannot perceive this because their version of reality is so limited.) Later in the film, when the consumables are battling the humans at the supermarket, Barry shows up with the severed head of this bath salt-addled junkie. Barry didn’t kill the guy (that would be far too mean-spirited); it was a freak accident. But when the noggin of this blazed lug plops down on the floor, and Barry yells triumphantly, “the gods can be killed!”, it’s a moment that is equally hilarious, moving, and bonkers. That’s the kind of thing that comedies need more of. 

But when Sausage Party fixates on its message against religion, it often feels as earnest as a kid-friendly Pixar movie. (Sidenote, the afore-mentioned drugged-out lunkhead drives a beat-up old car with a bumper sticker that reads, “Dixar.”) Seth Rogen, who plays the main character, a sausage named Frank, is the one who first discovers the truth about the Great Beyond, and he becomes the film’s literal voice of reason, championing free thought over blissful ignorance. When he angers the entire supermarket with his claims that the Great Beyond is a lie, he realizes he must be “nicer.” It feels smug and disingenuous, and really beneath everything else that’s happening in Sausage Party, because so much of Sausage Party is ingeniously crazy. It happily riffs on all the politics—be they racial, gender, what-have-you—of our time: two supporting characters are a Jewish bagel named Sammy Bagel, Jr. (voice of Edward Norton) and a Middle Eastern lavash named Kareem Abdul Lavash (voice of David Krumholtz); another character, the sultry lesbian Teresa del Taco (voiced by Salma Hayek) has a crush on Brenda, the other main character, a hot dog bun who’s in love with Frank. (She’s voiced by Kristen Wiig.) There’s a Native American character, Firewater (Bill Hader) who knows the truth but pretends not to: he’s imbued with all the stereotypes of the wise old Indian distilling knowledge (and weed). And, much like Blazing Saddles erupts in an orgy of chaotic violence at the end, Sausage Party erupts in an orgy too, the old-fashioned kind. 

As delightfully reprehensible as much of Sausage Party is, it loves silliness too, and accumulates a stock of wonderful little throwaway puns. Every adage about food you can imagine (“spill the beans”, “how do you like them apples?”) is thrown into the mix; when one character says, “Okay, so…”, a jar of sticky orange cheese suddenly appears and says, “Did somebody say ‘queso’?” And then there are moments that truly feel disturbing, like when a woman is preparing dinner, and we see the food being tortured and killed: a triumphant potato, the first item she picks up, suddenly screams in horror as she begins to skin him and then tosses him into a pot of boiling water; the woman then pops two baby carrots into her mouth, and we see her teeth chomping them into bits from the inside while outside, horrifying foods wail, “She’s eating children!” So if we have to have our comedies doused in messages today, at least some filmmakers are still jolting us with the kind of nutty, irreverent insanity that makes the genre an urgently needed antidote to our own reality.

Directed by Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernan. With voices of Nick Kroll (as one of the film’s chief villains, a douche), James Franco, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Paul Rudd, and Anders Holm. 

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