by David Cornelius
Before I get to the usual stuff about ha ha, ho ho, isn’t it hilarious that “Team America: World Police” is rated R for “graphic violence and sex all involving puppets” - an actual statement from the MPAA which is, by the way, pretty goddamned funny - I’d like to mention something that’s bound to go overlooked in all the uproar, both positive and negative, that’s sure to come to this film. Namely, this is an incredible example of puppetry.Yes, the comedy that goes for cheap laughs by sending up the “Marionation” style of Gerry Anderson’s “Thunderbirds” is, in reality, prime puppet goodness. The opening shot of the film, in which we pull back to reveal a massive, complex shot of a Paris overflowing with marionette citizens, is perhaps the most intricate bit of filmed puppetry ever attempted; its only rival is in the works of Jim Henson, most notably the massive bicycle sequence in “The Great Muppet Caper,” or just about any scene from “The Dark Crystal.” And even though the filmmakers get their jollies by having the puppets walk badly (you know, “hey, isn’t this kitchy cool?”), they must be commended for brilliantly combining the intentionally awful and the surprisingly magnificent.
"The best R-rated action-spy political satire marionette movie ever."
That’s the whole trick to “Team America,” a film so deft in its satire that its sincerity is better than most “actual” movies. You see, the film is not an attack on the politics of either the right or left wing (although that’s a delicious major part of it, sure). Instead, it’s a glorious send-up of your typical Jerry Bruckheimer megaproduction. No cliché goes overlooked, no bit of hammy dialogue or ridiculous plot mangling gets a free pass. As writer/producers Trey Parker (who also directed) and Matt Stone have already shown through their work on “South Park,” these are guys who know their Hollywood crapola, and therefore know exactly which buttons to tweak.
Side note: Let me praise the work of Harry Gregson-Williams, who composed the film’s amazing musical score. Not once does his music here wink at the audience, hinting at the comedy on screen. Instead, he writes the score as if John Woo were in the director’s chair and Ben Affleck were the leading man; that is to say, the score sounds lifted from a million summer actioners, with every bombastic explosion of brass and every pretentious Hans Zimmer-y choral chant expertly copied. Only, surprise, surprise, it’s better - Gregson-Williams manages to improve on the very style he’s mocking.
While the success of the score is a genuine surprise, the success of the songs isn’t. Remembering that the best parts of their “South Park” movie came during the musical interludes, Parker and Stone have another go at the funny tune business. The actual song titles I will not reveal, as they (again) provide some of the movie’s best laughs, but I will say that we get hee-larious riffs on ickily jingoistic country-pop tunes, ultrahip Broadway melodies, and rock-out theme songs, the last of which is a song that perfectly captures the idiocies of blind macho patrotism in a tune so unbearably catchy that it took days for me to shake it from my noodle.
Speaking of blind macho patriotism. Yeah, here’s the part of the review where I’m forced to discuss the movie’s politics, for what they’re worth. But here’s the thing: with “Team America,” Parker and Stone take so many jabs at so many sides that everyone will be able to say that this movie agrees with them on all vital issues of the day. Liberals will find reason to declare “Team America” a biting commentary on the screw-you-buddy attitude of the Bush Administration as well as their many gaffes in the so-called war on terror. Conservatives will find reason to declare “Team America” a biting commentary on the desire of movie stars and other self-important Hollywood types to debate politics, despite usually being generally too air-headed to realize their punditry is unwanted and annoying.
Me, I see it as both. You see, Parker and Stone take both attitudes to such extremes that their film can actually be seen, depending on your own point of view, as an attack on the left/right and a mockery of those who attack the left/right. Consider the plot point that has a group of movie stars teaming up with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, while Michael Moore becomes a suicide bomber. One could see this as saying, hey, look how stupid those Hollywood types are, with their dopey liberal causes and whatnot... or, one could see this as saying, hey, this is how the right-wingers see Hollywood activism through their own warped minds. The right, and the left’s view of the right, is shown in similar ways. “Team America,” through all its sheer vulgar silliness, stands as one of the few pieces of modern satire to find safety in the middle, mocking both sides on multiple levels.
And that’s what makes “Team America” one of the sharpest, most intelligent films of the year. This is a comedy that does so much at one time, working all political views against each other, and never ignoring the cheap laugh, either. This is highbrow, lowbrow, and every brow in between, all of it crammed with critical political critique, and all brought to life by a genius combo of brilliant puppetry and a parody of same. This is a movie that will make you laugh uncontrollably when you first see it - and then make you think endlessly, about the meaning, about the comedy, about the craftsmanship, long after the credits have rolled.
One last thought. The puppet sex. Yes, the film contains a very graphic (or as graphic as you can get with puppets) sexual scene, and yes, the filmmakers were caught in a long dispute with the MPAA ratings people, who wanted to give the film an NC-17. (The film finally got an R after multiple re-edits and bargaining.) But let’s look at three points here. First, the MPAA didn’t seem to mind any of the endless shots of graphic puppet violence, either because they traditionally are softer on violence than they are on sex, or because they realized, screw it, it’s puppets, and that’s funny crap. Either way, I call hypocrite shenanigans. Second, remember that the “South Park” movie was essentially one long diatribe on the MPAA’s history of irrational behavior, and such a ratings tangle this time out could be viewed as payback. Again, petty politics in the guise of “protecting” moviegoers and whatnot (even if Parker and Stone could be accused of intentionally baiting the MPAA into such a fight).But thirdly, and most importantly, note that the sex scene only takes to extremes what many Hollywood movies offer in real-life flesh-and-blood. Either with PG-13 suggestiveness, R-rated steaminess, or “unrated” excess, Hollywood loves to sell with sex. With their puppet sex sequence, Parker and Stone seem to say to us, look, Hollywood loves the sex, so why not parody such pointless sex scenes by taking one to bizarre extremes? It’s just another keen bit of satire, another poke at the Hollywood blockbuster machine. Maybe since the film’s loaded with so many keen bits of satire, this one just happened over the MPAA’s head. Or maybe they’re just a bunch of crusty old hypocrites. Either way, the MPAA kerfuffle (hot damn, that’s a fun word) gained the movie some bonus notoriety and free press, meaning lots more folks got clued into what’s looking to be the year’s smartest, most impressive comedy.
link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=10976&reviewer=392
originally posted: 02/25/05 18:47:17