Letter From The Editor - Issue 58 - August 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
August 2016

Sausage Party

How to talk to your food about life after death

On religions, gods, guilt, myth, and the sexual proclivities of your foods and household items

Sausage Party
Columbia Pictures
Director: Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan
Screenplay: Kyle Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
Starring: The voices of Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Michael Cera, Nick Kroll, Jonah Hill, David Krumholtz, Edward Norton, Salma Hayek, Bill Hader, Craig Robinson and Paul Rudd
Rated R / 1 hour, 29 minutes / 1.85:1
August 12, 2016
(out of four)

Sausage Party is a marriage of the high and the low. The solemn and the base, the philosophical and the corporeal. It is a sophisticated piece of computer animation that nonetheless has the [deliberate] look and feel of a cheap Saturday-morning cartoon. It revolves around something as commonplace and inconsequential as grocery-store products (foods and non-foods alike), and yet it has the cosmic weight of God and religion - life, death, afterlife - on its mind. It is a movie rooted in bright-eyed innocence, and also obsessed with sex, and genitals, and bodily functions and fluids of all kinds, like a VeggieTales rumspringa.

As unholy unions go, this is a delightful one. Not perfect, nor consistent, but it is uniquely its own concoction, a filthy, undisciplined, half-smart, half-dumb marvel of unhinged comedic recklessness. I don't know entirely why it works, or if it even should have. It's like one of those volatile marriages between people who seemingly make no sense together yet can't get enough of each other. This was an idea destined to be better in thought than execution - a chemically induced comic riff between friends that couldn't possibly work in 90-minute form - but somehow works just because of its creators' ability to really go after the joke, at whatever cost, whatever risk and whatever offense. That commitment to follow-through is what distinguishes this movie from something like Kevin Smith's Tusk, another concept seemingly best left as a thought experiment, but against all odds coming together as an actual feature. The difference is that, unlike Smith, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg (along with their co-writers Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir) know how to see it through - to expand well beyond the "what a crazy idea" stage. As opposed to Tusk - which creatively began and ended in the same 45-minute gabfest - Sausage Party's idea leads to more ideas. The premise builds on itself - it broadens and curves and even overshoots, but always with its eye on comic possibility.

And so what if it doesn't quite reach its ambitions. It's shooting for a Mel Brooks-like meta satire, but with the obscenity and bad taste of Trey Parker and Matt Stone. That it's not as sharp as any of those forebears is understandable, if not inevitable. Where the film lands is somewhere closer to Ricky Gervais' The Invention of Lying - which, for the record, I liked. What the two films have in common is a skepticism of organized religion as a force for social order, and on even bigger terms of concepts of God and heaven and hell. God and religion as the Big Lie. In this regard, neither film is remotely as edgy as they seem to think they are; however, that ground is still fertile, and both are exceptionally resourceful in finding relevant ways to twist their satirical knives.

Sausage Party - co-directed by feature-film veteran Conrad Vernon and Thomas the Tank Engine helmer Greg Tiernan (natch) - goes hilariously heavy on stereotypes, national, ethnic, religious and gender-specific alike. But for all the one-off jokes Rogen, Goldberg and Co. find within their framework of caricatured cultures, the focus is primarily on ideas about sex, and how those ideas connect to mortality and exaltation. That the movie explores those ideas through the eyes of packaged food products (and various other kitchen and bathroom items) simply gives the filmmakers an intrinsically absurd sensibility and the opportunity for labored, on-the-nose, sometimes cringe-inducing (but in a good way!) puns and metaphors. It's certainly no stretch to see how sausages (wieners?) fitting snugly into buns can be sexually suggestive, but other combinations are trickier (and the rewards of the film's best, most unexpected jokes therefore more fulfilling).

For these characters, their entire world is Shopwell's, the grocery store they serenade with a joyful song every morning as the sun rises and the sliding doors open. Like the green alien squeeze toys in Toy Story awaiting the embrace of The Claw, the sausages (and buns, and mustards, and tortillas, and carrots and tomatoes and ... you get the drill) in Sausage Party await their chance each day to get selected and ushered into the Great Beyond, where they believe they will reach paradise (which in their terms mostly means being able to finally have sex). Frank (voiced by Rogen) has carefully positioned his package of weenies next to the package of buns that includes the love of his life, Brenda (Kristen Wiig), so they can go into the Great Beyond together. (I mean, Frank and Brenda wouldn't want to lose their virginity to anyone else. Their love is too pure!) Frank's similarly horny posse of fellow sausages includes Carl (Jonah Hill) and Barry (Michael Cera), who has to be consoled about his diminutive length by reassurances of his girth.

But when a bottle of honey mustard (Danny McBride) returns from the Great Beyond and reveals it to be a sham, it sends the gang on an existential quest, questioning not only the morals they've clung to but the stories they've been told about their makers, and their very purpose in this world. Along the way they cross paths with a sexually aggressive taco named Teresa (Salma Hayek, of course); Kareem Abdul Lavash (David Krumholtz), who's feuding with Sammy Bagel Jr. (Edward Norton, doing a straight-up Woody Allen impersonation); and a vengeful douche with roid rage (Nick Kroll).

While the various character archetypes and nationalities are made perfectly clear, they are by and large specific to religious identity (i.e. Teresa's de-facto Catholicism provoking guilt about her desire for Brenda). That a film this scattered in its comedic targets can still wind up being thematically focused - and pulling it off relatively well - is a testament to the talents of this filmmaking team. Vernon and Tiernan present competing hellish and heavenly visual motifs, and get a lot of mileage out of the transposition of the animate and the inanimate. The act of slicing a potato as skinning someone alive. The act of snacking on baby carrots as "eating children." And in one of the film's big setpieces, an accident in a grocery aisle is presented as a hazy battleground scene, as the filmmakers riff on Saving Private Ryan, substituting the bullet wounds, missing body parts and strewn intestines for crumbled cookies, flattened produce, smashed bottles and their oozing jellies. And that's to say nothing of the other big setpiece, as the film climaxes (literally) its religious journey with a massive, uninhibited, no-limits orgy - with every possible food/gender combination covered, and a number of positions that rivals the equivalent scene in Team America (just with many, many more participants for each act).

Sausage Party may, in many ways, pale in comparison to its comic inspirations, and yet it still lands more jokes than most of its contemporaries. It's made by people who know exactly where (and how) to look for the comedic angles, and more often than not they find them. God bless Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg.


Read more by Chris Bellamy


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