Friday, August 31, 2007

Are you saying 'boo' or 'boo-urns'?


Well, it's been a very long time since I've posted anything new to the blog. I know, I suck. But with my internship over and the summer of hell behind me, I'll hopefully have a little bit more time to devote to writing about movies.

Given that it came out a little more than a month ago, this mammoth review of The Simpsons Movie is just a bit behind schedule. I would have knocked it out sooner, but when I decided to write-up the film, I realized that doing so meant a lot more than just writing up the movie. I was reviewing "The Simpsons" itself-- the show, the characters, the Entity, the entire cultural phenomenon. A daunting task, especially for someone who's gone from absolute adoration of the series to a sick sort of ongoing depression over its current, watered-down state of being. What follows is roughly 1600 words of digression on the subject. Enjoy!


The Simpsons Movie

Before Maude Flanders died and Barney went sober, before Apu got married and Milhouse’s folks got divorced, there aired an episode of “The Simpsons” aptly if uncreatively titled “The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular.” Hosted by Springfield’s perennial washed-up movie star Troy McClure, the elaborate clip reel/retrospective ended with Troy proclaiming of Fox’s flagship family: “Who knows what adventures they’ll have between now and the time the show becomes unprofitable.” That was 1995, at the very peak of the program’s commercial and creative success, and a pretty safe time to be joking about the bottom-line future of the series. Still, it was a vintage “Simpsons” moment, the writers of the show slyly winking at the fleeting nature of their good fortune. It was also a rather shrewd acknowledgment that “The Simpsons” has always been, from its headlines-grabbing first season onward, equal parts product and artistic venture.

Twelve years later, and Troy’s offhand, throwaway gag has taken on depressing new relevance. As of now, 2007, it's been a whopping 20 years since Matt Groening's yellow-skinned, four-fingered brood first appeared on the "Tracy Ullman Show," and eighteen since they nabbed their own primetime animated series. As a brand and an institution, The Simpsons endure, their popularity (RE: profitability) only slightly tempered by time and overexposure. In other words, TV’s first family can still sell t-shirts and hock Butterfingers. But what of the passion, the artistic vision, the heart and soul of the thing? If the characters have remained impervious to the aging process—Bart’s still a mischievous 10-year-old, while little Lisa’s still wise beyond her years at 8—the series created around them sure hasn’t. To put it kindly, it’s a shadow of its former self, a broad, clunky, anything-goes jamboree that bares little resemblance to “The Simpsons” everyone fell in love with nearly two decades ago.

Of course, good TV shows wither and fade every season, causalities of dwindling creative focus and flop-sweat desperation. But for anyone who believes in the survival of smart, provocative television, the steady decline of the “The Simpsons”—as an ongoing artistic venture, if not a product—is indeed call for an impassioned, resounding “D’oh!” After all, during its mid-90s heyday, the show wasn't just good (or, rather, consistently and unfathomably great) it was downright transcendent. At its core a traditional family sitcom about a traditional American family, it neatly encapsulated all the fears, desires, prejudices, and hard-won ideals of our mixed-up, post-modern nation—the best and worst of America, served up on a weekly basis in 22-minute blasts of pop-art irreverence. Poised between irony and sincerity, gleeful cynicism and genuine sentiment, the animated series managed to be bountifully ambitious in scope without ever straying too far from the down-to-earth trials and tribulations of its blue-collar subjects. Really, to call “The Simpsons,” in its first seven or eight seasons, the best TV show of all time is hard to argue but almost misleading. It was always more than a TV show, a cultural phenomenon that doubled as a grand, working thesis of the modern age and the defining satire of our time.

In fact, “The Simpsons” was so funny and so subversive for so long that it’s easy to understand why its fanbase never quite gave up on it. Don’t have a cow, man! cry the diehards, rushing to defend the show in its august years. It’s still good, it’s still good! Tempting though it might be to write Groening and Co. a free pass for the last ten seasons of mediocrity, “The Simpsons” is way past its expiration date, praise-worthy only when compared to the rest of the dreck on network television. Fox’s execrable “Family Guy” takes a lot of heat for pillaging the “Simpsons” playbook, yet the bitter irony is that, more often than not, the innovator now resembles its chief imitator: both shows rely heavily on random non-sequiturs, shallow pop-culture allusions, and mean-spirited slapstick. Worse still, while “The Simpsons” of yore tempered its snarkiness with a redemptive faith in people and their potential for goodness, the new model pays lazy lip-service to family values, reminding us with an occasional nudge that its heart’s still basically in the right place. These token flashes of sentiment feel forced and disingenuous when measured against the barrage of senseless, go-for-broke mayhem that has come to characterize the show. Having long since lapsed into winking self-parody, “The Simpsons” is, artistically speaking, an empty vessel running on fumes. But for Groening and his co-creators, for the writers and the cast, and (especially) for 20th Century Fox, it remains (as Troy McClure would surely admit) profitable. And so it remains.

Which brings us, in a roundabout, rambling, Grandpa Simpson sort of way, to this summer’s The Simpsons Movie. All those who doubted the multiplex drawing power of Homer and his kin have been silenced by the bountiful grosses of this belated cinematic offering. A smash hit all over the world, the film has solidified the “Simpsons” Empire, making movie stars out of television icons and establishing the characters’ dominance over yet another entertainment medium. It’s very good news indeed for the bean counters at Fox, but what of the rest of us? And what of this long-awaited, eagerly anticipated, feature-length spin-off—a project that Groening and Executive Producer James L. Brooks have been cooking up since the dawn of the Clinton administration? Was it worth the wait? For those still enamored of “The Simpsons” and its current brand of kamikaze-nonsense humor, the answer would surely be an unhesitant, unqualified yes. The film hews close to the tone and style of current episodes, dashing the hopes of anyone counting on even a modest return to Golden Age form.

Yet one has to suspect that all fans, old or new, jaded or still smitten, may find something quaintly small-screen about this big-screen offering. Put another way: there’s nothing particularly movie-ish about The Simpsons Movie. Naturally, certain adjustments have been made, little things to atone for the fact that, as Homer cynically remarks in the wink-wink opening credits, we’re all paying for what we can see every night on television for free. Entrusted with the near-impossible task of making something very old and very familiar look brand spanking new, longtime “Simpsons” director David Silverman gives the simple cartoon aesthetic a spit-shine, laying down lush, painted backgrounds and stretching the frame into theatrical widescreen. There are a few token action sequences, too, and, in the one nod to the show that was as opposed to the show that is, a fairly linear, three-act narrative. Yet the whole enterprise feels TV-ready, less cinematic than many of the series’ bigger and more ambitious episodes. There’s none of the event-movie excitement of “Marge vs. The Monorail” or “Deep Space Homer,” none of the urgency of the sprawling, two-part “Who Shot Mr. Burns?,” which, in spite of its cliff-hanger structure, would have made a terrific, iconic motion picture debut for the denizens of Springfield.

What we get instead is little more than an extended episode of the series—“The Simpsons’ 90-Minute Earth Day Special,” or something of the like. Topical environmental concerns lie at the center of the film, which weds a disaster-movie conceit to one of the show’s usual family crises. When Homer, in full-on, selfish ignoramus mode, dumps a vat of human and pig feces into Springfield River, the U.S. government quarantines the entire town, sealing it off under a giant, Plexiglas dome. With an angry mob hot in pursuit, the Simpsons manage to escape the city, headed for Alaska to jump-start their new lives. Will Homer ever win back the love and respect of his fed-up family? Will Lisa ever see her socially conscious, Irish-brogued beau again? And will Springfield be reduced to a smoldering crater by the clueless President Schwarzenegger (A.K.A. Rainier Wolfcastle with brown hair)? Like an average episode of the series, The Simpsons Movie is layered with subplots, yet not a single one of them here feels even remotely fresh or essential. We’ve seen it all before, from the family starting over in a new town, to Bart losing and then regaining faith in his father. Marge’s heartfelt, videotaped “goodbye” to Homer would be more poignant and suspenseful if the writers didn’t trot out a near-divorce dilemma for them every few years. And the doomsday storyline would carry more weight had it not been done before, with more grace and humanity—think of the citizens of Springfield, joining Ned Flanders on the hill to sing “Que Sera, Sera,” awaiting their collective doom together, as a community. Even Homer’s infatuation with a pig—a silly, proudly lowbrow plot strand that the film devotes way too much screen-time to—is borrowed from an old episode (curly, straight, anyone?).

The Simpsons Movie contains no real surprises and no new laughs. Worst of all, it takes no risks. The PG-13 rating allows for the smashing of a few taboos—brief nudity, some mild obscenities and hand gestures, some on-screen drug and alcohol abuse—but these are easy transgressions, designed to please the fans, not ruffle feathers. Even the political commentary is pat and inoffensive, with tame references to The Governator and An Inconvenient Truth, rather than the sharp, pointed satire that used to boil Bush Sr.’s blood during the show’s booming, fledgling years. With each passing season, those early episodes, with their big ideas, complicated agendas, and heart-on-the-sleeve convictions, seem but a distant memory. The future is quantity over quality. More episodes, more merchandise, and—given the success of this underwhelming but high-grossing cinematic excursion—more safe, crowd-pleasing, profitable movies. The Simpsons Empire is stronger than ever. “I honestly don’t see an end in sight,” Groening said publicly last year of his archaic show, and that was before he launched a new blockbuster film franchise for his worn-out creations.

But what, Mr. Groening, of the passion, the artistic vision, the heart and soul of the thing? What has become of your ongoing magnum opus, and where can it possibly go from here? Ask him ten years ago, when he might’ve cared. He’s got cartoons to make.