August 2, 2007
The Simpsons Movie (PG-13)
The four-fingered, yellow-skinned all-American Springfield family that has taught us so much over these past 18 years has finally come to the big screen in The Simpsons Movie.
What have they taught us? My personal favorites are:
• “Alcohol, the cause of — and solution to — all of life’s problems.”
• “Making teenagers depressed is like shooting fish in a barrel.”
• “We like Roy.”
The first quote came at the end of an episode about a (briefly) dry Springfield, filled with bootleggers and speakeasies. The second came during a Smashing Pumpkins concert in an episode whose larger themes included Homer’s attempt to learn about the music of today (today being some 10 years ago). The third was a throwaway line by the hard-of-hearing seniors sitting in the back of a meeting where the audience was told to chant “Be like the boy.”
And now that I’ve squeezed every last drop of funny out of these quotes by explaining them, let me also explain that they are more or less why I like The Simpsons, or at least the episodes I saw about a decade ago when I was still watching the show on a regular basis. The Simpsons’ humor is best when it’s fleeting — a nugget of hilarity chucked at you as part of the ongoing 30-minute parade of satire, pratfalls, parody and just flat-out weirdness that is (or at least, was) The Simpsons. Maybe you caught it, maybe you didn’t — there were lots more and most of them weren’t related to each other so who cared if you got one joke but didn’t hear the next because you were so busy laughing? In last week’s Dork vs. Dork column, Dan Szczesny suggested that The Simpsons helped make geeks the pop-culture-referencing Comic Book Guy disciples they are today. I think it goes much deeper than that — the show affected the language (“craptacular”) and the very cadence with which we speak (“Worst. Observations. Ever.”). We in the pop culture universe haven’t just been watching The Simpsons, we are The Simpsons.
Area colleges, I can go on like this for at least a semester. I’ll be happy to teach your “The Simpsons and American Society” course. For a small fee.
Watch any five minutes of The Simpsons Movie and you’re reminded of this — even if, like me, you’ve drifted to The Sopranos or some other It’s-Not-TV show for the last several years of Sundays and haven’t kept in contact with the sitcom. The movie starts (somewhere near its opening scenes) with Homer (Dan Castellaneta) and Bart (Nancy Cartwright) fixing the roof and eventually meanders to a rock concert where Green Day dies when its barge is eaten away by the polluted Lake Springfield, which Lisa (Yeardley Smith) campaigns to save, thereby meeting a fellow environmentalist (who’s Irish and so dreamy). Thanks to her presentation “An Irritating Truth” Lisa is able to get the residents of Springfield to stop dumping their toxic sludge, dead mobsters and other pollutants into the lake. However, after Homer adopts a pig and is ordered by Marge (Julie Kavner) to remove its silo of poop from the back yard, he ends up dumping it in the lake because he’s in a hurry to get some of the free donuts at the closed-by-the-health-department donut shop. Which leads President Arnold Schwarzenegger and EPA director Russ Cargill (Albert Brooks) to a plan wherein they seal off Springfield and its pollutants from the rest of the country by dropping a dome on it. Which leads to the town of Springfield forming an angry mob and descending on the Simpsons, who have to be saved by their neighbor Ned (Harry Shearer), who Bart’s starting to think might make a better father. And I haven’t even mentioned Grandpa’s (Castellaneta) vision from God or Marge’s decision to follow Homer to Alaska. Or how the town idiot-proofed the lake, with help from Cletus (Hank Azaria).
As in every The Simpsons episode, several dozen things happen in the opening third or so of the movie, many of them riffs on stuff that has happened at some time before in Simpsons lore. This movie isn’t even the first time Homer Simpson’s actions have led to the total destruction of the town. (Remember? It moved. Let us “never speak of this again,” another addition to our speech patterns.) Later in the movie, he has an enlightening visit with an Inuit woman who feeds him a fiery hot drink (“more please”). Last time, it was Johnny Cash talking through a coyote.
Any given five minutes of The Simpsons Movie, especially during the first half of the movie, feels like this: off-the-wall jokes, some current-event riff, some plot twist that you seem to remember in variation from several years back — all in the good way.
The problem, in so far as this sturdy little movie has problems, is that the very best Simpsons episodes were more than just strings of wackiness. For those of us who started watching the show in the beginning and didn’t drop off after the initial bloom of “Underachiever and Proud Of It” T-shirts started to fade, the best seasons (the ones that make the show truly ground-breaking, culture-milestone television) were the ones where broad parody and clever satire mixed with underlying sweetness of familial togetherness. Lisa and Bart occasionally paused in their sibling antagonism to appreciate each other. Marge was able, with gentle nagging, to keep her family or her marriage together. Homer found some way to make up for his boneheadedness with moments of “awww.” There were actual serious-ish themes underneath all that scatting and jamming.
In the movie, this part of the series — the part that seasons back helped the episodes to gel and gave the comedy some oomph — is the weakest part. Still a funny parade of moments, The Simpsons Movie doesn’t pull together in the way you expect, especially if your most recent memories of the show are from its heyday.
There is still plenty of funny here and at just under 90 minutes, The Simpsons don’t wear out their welcome before The Simpsons Movie runs out of film. B-
Rated PG-13 for irreverent humor throughout (including a flash of Bart’s little Simpson). Directed by David Silverman and written by James L. Brooks, Matt Groening, Al Jean, Ian Maxtone-Graham, George Meyer, David Mirkin, Mike Reiss, Mike Scully, Matt Selman, John Swartzwelder and Jon Vitti (with consultant writers Joel Cohen, John Frink, Tim Long and Michael Price),The Simpsons Movie is an hour and 25 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by 20th Century Fox.