Film Reviews

The Simpsons Movie David Silverman

Rating - 7/10

The best thing about the hype for The Simpsons Movie (and I can't remember an overwhelming studio hype for a summer film adaptation of an established property that I actually welcomed before this) is that it has been a reminder to get excited about The Simpsons' legacy. It is a matter of credibility to throw out a gush of hyperbole for one of the only entities that truly deserves it. I don't know why I bother casting my sword in this dickslinging donnybrook, but I kind of have to.

The Simpsons is the apex of popular art in the twentieth century. The show means more to me than Stanley Kubrick, Pink Floyd, Public Enemy, Albert Camus, Richard Pryor, Samuel Beckett, and Salvador Dali or whatever name or work I can think to throw against the wall. Of course, The Simpsons threw everything against the wall in a bottomless sea of reference that is simultaneously as good a kaleidoscope of last century's culture as any and a harbinger, then embodiment, of the information age that led us into the current century. Through all this, it developed a highly unique and unmistakable voice, look, and persona fuelled by the most consistently dense, funny, and intelligent writing ever achieved and sustained. A tossed off, grotesque, and highly personal middle American nuclear family caricature by a brilliant, embittered cartoonist became the ideal platform for the most thorough deconstruction of America, family, religion, and society at large that has yet been accomplished.

If The Simpsons was the height of twentieth century art, it has had problems in the twenty-first. After taking a few seasons to realize its enormous potential, it spent nearly a decade in a state of excellence and often near perfection, pushing the limits of what it could do simultaneously, from being a genuinely affectionate, honest family comedy to a trenchant, merciless satire of any and all cherished institutions and assumptions to a beautiful parade of absurdity and slapstick. I've often thought that television shows shouldn't last more than five seasons, but The Simpsons had at least twice as many runs better than any other series.

When such extremes have almost impossibly been pulled off so many times, however, spinning into wilder realms while still somehow holding together, eventually centrifugal force overcomes and the whole thing spins off in all directions, losing the centre. That seems to be what happened to The Simpsons, which lost something essential in the exhaustion of eighteen seasons. Yes, it remains one of the funniest and most high quality shows, but it will probably never be so special, so hilarious, so transcendent and mindblowing as it once was. Once a show loses its centre, it really can't be regained. What do you pull back to put it back into place? Nobody can agree because its entirely subjective to figure out where the music died, but I know I'm not the only devotee who has gradually drifted away from religiously watching new episodes, as peppered with brilliance and inspiration as it still may be.

The Simpsons Movie (which I'm not going to try to objectively review) represented an impossible hope for a new slate and an opportunity to recapture the magic. It is very well made and very funny, but it is not a return to the heights of the best years of the show. Even on the big screen, with a team of the best and most prolific writers from throughout the show's run, something about the tone cannot be recaptured. The plot is a collection of standard Simpsons tropes wrought on an apocalyptic level, where a more or less random and absurd series of opening events lead to Homer making an egregious and selfish error that endangers his friends and neighbours, leading to several shenanigans and a bit of soul searching before a spectacular slapstick conclusion and redemption.

To get started on what isn't quite right, let me speculate that James L. Brooks, co-creator, one of eleven writers, sitcom legend, and Oscar winning director, had something to do with it. While he most likely deserves a great deal of credit for shepherding The Simpsons into a functional half-hour series, his sensibility never fully meshed with the series, which flourished as it moved farther away from Brooks' vision.

Brooks is a poet of the ho hum middlebrow, while great Simpsons material emphasized the only two brows worth a damn, the high and low. Watching the first season, there are several movements that don't ring true to the best seasons, where large doses of sentimentality and heart are forced into the story at a loss to the comic momentum. There are several later season episodes that seem to be straining to recapture the emotional core of the show with overly maudlin storylines. In its prime, however, such heart tugging never interfered with the gonzo momentum of the show and its ruthless unsentimentality made the moments of genuine emotion, chiefly Homer's frequent eleventh hour redemptions, have more resonance. It is easier to sincerely love the characters when they aren't bending over backward to show their humanity and vulnerability. Strangely, and perhaps disturbingly, Homer as thoughtless, neglectful drunk was always funnier and more lovable than the early Homer, good hearted schlub.

There are far too many moments in The Simpsons Movie that try too hard to create a filmic emotional story without an undercutting humour to leaven it, or accompanied by jokes without bite. Bart defecting to the Flanders is a situation ripe with possibilities, but in the Movie it is an underexplored climax to a quantity of relatively humourless content about his anguish over Homer's carelessness that effectively neuters his character, with the exception of when he is soused on whiskey (Simpson men are such beautiful, horrible human beings when they are drunk). Once again, its pure speculation that all of these saccharine instincts are Brooks' fault, but I feel close enough to the show for no good reason that I feel entitled to jump to that conclusion. On the upside, the well trod plotline of Marge having her faith in Homer stretched too far results in some truly affecting moments.

In addition to the distracting sentimentality of The Simpsons Movie, the focus is disproportionately on the direct family, reflecting too great an effort to streamline and focus the storytelling for a feature. Yes, everybody's major favourites in the vast supporting cast make appearances, but not for very long. Where an average episode only needs to make use of a few additional characters in great length, others popping up as needed for quips and gags, the Movie essentially reduces everybody but the Simpsons to cameo status in an effort to cram in as many appearances as possible (ironic in that the story concerns the fate and possible destruction of Springfield, but its legendary citizenry is shortchanged). Curiously, the Springfield cast suffers to a lengthy, albeit funny, detour to Alaska, and the needless introduction of new characters such as the colourless Russ Cargill (voiced by the colourless Albert Brooks) as a villain whose effort to trap Springfield in a giant dome and later destroy it utterly lacks the classic relish of Mr. Burns (not seen much here) scheming to block out the sun.

All of this fanboy complaining aside, The Simpsons Movie is good. It is funny. Honestly, nothing could really live up to the wet dream of hilarity I want from a Simpsons Movie. While it lacks something golden about the best of the series, I am still thinking about several gags and finding them funnier in retrospect, and I will go back to see it again (and possibly again and again until it becomes the funniest movie ever to me, much like Daft Punk's Discovery originally vexed me because it didn't sound like Homework, but later became my favourite dance album).

Furthermore, my hopes are stoked for more cinematic Simpsons. I'd like to think of this as the flawed but promising first superhero entry that lays down the gauntlet for a superior, more focused sequel, a la Blade or Spider-Man. Perhaps something with a main plot involving a secondary character that could spend more time at Moe's or the Kwik E Mart. Perhaps a Treehouse of Horror movie anthology that could return The Simpsons to half hour storytelling. My favourite idea would be to go the Star Trek route and base a smaller, more successful sequel around a cherished villain from the original series. Don't those epic Sideshow Bob storylines just beg for big screen treatment?