Monday, August 15, 2016

"Sausage Party"

 2.5 / 5 

Why should it be any stranger or less appropriate to laugh at the sexual proclivities of food than it is to, say, sigh over the empty love life of a volcano or hope that two futuristic robots will end up together?

What it all comes (ahem) down to is whether the characters legitimately earn our respect and sympathy, and that, let me tell you about Sausage Party, depends on how much respect and sympathy you have for anyone or anything that consistently confuses profanity for wit.

It's not any more or less shocking or any more (or less) funny to hear the F-bomb hundreds of times within the first few minutes of Sausage Party than it would be in any other film, and the fact that it's being uttered by hot dogs, hot dog buns, jars of mustard and bottles of ketchup do not excuse the failure of Sausage Party to find any way to earn our attention than to pummel us over the head with its manufactured inappropriateness.

Bear in mind, it's been 25 years since we found it charming for a young girl to have a gentle sexual awakening in the arms of a towering, hairy beast.  Animation has a particular way of making anything seem possible, and Sausage Party is hardly the first time that has extended to talking foodstuff.  (In fact, the last time I saw this gag, the food was espousing Christian ethics in Veggie Tales.)

So, Sausage Party knows it had better do something and pretty fast, because even a song with music by Alan Menken can't save its first few minutes.  It comes as a relief, then, that Sausage Party continues to get better and better the more patience you have.

Set primarily in a grocery store, Sausage Party proceeds, like Toy Story before it, to imagine that inanimate objects have a secret life humans know nothing about.  In this case, the food believes that the "gods" who wander the aisles of the store pushing shopping carts "choose" the food to take to "the great beyond," where they will be treated to a food version of heaven.

When a jar of honey mustard (yes, it's fun and funny even to write this) is returned to the shelves, he comes bearing horrific news: He has seen what actually happens, and it's terrifying.  The movie's best and most creative, amusing sequence happens as he tries to warn the others and ends up in a scene that is like a grocery-store version of the Normandy invasion in Saving Private Ryan.  Watch for the Oreo: He's worth the price of admission.

The movie's main characters are a hot dog, Frank (Seth Rogen), and a hot dog bun, Brenda (Kristen Wiig), who desperately want to have sex with each other.  There are as many hot-dog-in-a-bun sex jokes as you could possibly imagine in Sausage Party, and then there are about three dozen more.

Whether to believe the jar of honey mustard or whether to just get on with their lives is at the artichoke heart of the movie, and Sausage Party turns into an odd quest film, interspersed with the adventures of a tiny, misshapen hot dog (Michael Cera) who sees more than he wants to of the outside world.  In the second-best scene in the movie, the little wiener witnesses the unique horrors of potatoes being peeled, baby carrots being eaten and a fellow hot dog being sliced right in front of his eyes.

Sausage Party is at its best when it uses animation to find humor in violent tropes; we live in astonishingly violent times and have become so used to terrifying images on movie screens that it's both funny and shocking to see horrific acts through the eyes of an innocent -- without anything truly graphic.  The ability of animation to simultaneously heighten and mute the impact of violence is one surprising discovery of Sasuage Party.

The rest is not nearly as clever.  There are funny scenes and moments, to be sure, and Sausage Party aims to be one of those equal-opportunity-offender comedies, painting Jews, Christians, gays, blacks, Mexicans and low-income whites with the kind of stereotypes that no live-action film has gotten away with since Mel Brooks' golden years.

There are high points, like Edward Norton's surprisingly good imitation of a young Woody Allen, and in the end the titular party finally takes place, finding no end of creative inspiration in the ways that food might have sex with each other.  There is straight sex, gay sex, S&M sex, fetish sex, you name it.  If this is what you envisioned for Sausage Party, and it probably was, then the movie finally delivers.

But it comes at a price.  There are some depressingly played-for-laughs scenes of drug use so graphic and unnecessary that the only logical explanation for this film not receiving an NC-17 rating is that the ratings board was high when they saw it.  The drug use is not innocent; I can give a movie a pass when its characters get really, really stoned, but when one of them shoots up deadly bath salts and the movie plays it for laughs, Sausage Party crosses a line.  I fully expected the movie to follow this up with a moment of pedophilia.

Keep in mind, this movie springs largely from the same minds who came up with the monumentally unfunny political chit called The Interview, and its a relief that Sausage Party is funnier and infinitely more clever than that film.  But it's still not quite clever enough; it laughs too often at its own jokes, a habit I hoped Rogen would have dispensed with by now.

There's probably an age correlation to the enjoyment of the film, though; that's something I fully admit. ,The 19-year-old kids in the audience thought cussing, sexually obsessed hot dogs were hilarious, much in the same way, probably, that they still find flipping off the camera to be funny.

Neither they, nor the old-enough-to-know-better filmmakers, have yet learned the concept of artistic irony; everything is played here pretty much at face value, and the movie never goes so far as to send up the bedrocks of CG animation as try to mimic what make the Pixar movies work -- then thumb their noses jealousy at the success, even adding in a visual gag of a bumper sticker with the word "Dixar," written in Pixar font.  If you can't rise to the level of your talented colleagues, call them dicks.  That usually works.

That's the weird problem with Sausage Party -- it's not a bad movie, it certainly isn't unfunny, and it almost makes it on its own.  But it's got a potato chip on its shoulder, and is imbued with a disturbing sort of jealousy, the kind that makes the C-grade kids shout unkind names at the A-grade kids.  Those C-level students could be A-level students, too, if they just trusted their imaginations a little more.

Yeah, the whole thing has a lot of comparisons to being back in school, and as far as that goes, Sausage Party isn't in the same class as the cool kids of, say, "Robot Chicken," which has studied how to combine adult humor and animation; it's mostly stuck in seventh-grade, drawing pictures of penises on book covers and getting hauled to the principal's office.  The thing is, the penises it draws are pretty funny.

Viewed Aug. 15, 2016 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks


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