I wanted to like Team America much more than I did, and can’t quite decide why I’m less than thrilled with this movie. Because it so tends to fall flat between the good bits? Because messieurs Stone and Parker don’t know when to let a good gag alone? Because it goes on at least 20 minutes longer than it should? Or because I think the film’s political fence-sitting is ill-advised and dangerous?
I suspect it’s a bit of all those things.
Now I have nothing against movies that set out to shock or are deliberately offensive. I’ve long appreciated the work of John Waters, and I consider Tony Richardson’s The Loved One (advertised as the movie with “something to offend everyone”) a bona fide comedy classic. But there’s a huge gap between being truly edgy and being generally puerile. It’s the difference between being “in bad taste” (Waters notes that you have to have good taste in order to create and recognize the bad stuff) and being simply “tasteless.”
About a third of Team America exhibits deliriously trashy bad taste, but most of the rest is just tasteless to the point of being infantile. Of course, the whole idea here is a little… well, childish. Political satire in the style of Gerry Anderson’s “Supermarionation” puppet shows — Super Car, Fireball XL 5, Thunderbirds — isn’t the pinnacle of sophisticated thinking, but then neither is most of the Parker-Stone oeuvre. And it isn’t meant to be.
But the blasphemously liberating anarchy of South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut is largely missing in this failed attempt to duplicate that earlier film.
In Team America, Parker and Stone’s inspired irreverence is overwhelmed by repetition and too much copying of earlier films. Let’s face it, Peter Jackson came up with gross-out gags involving puppets — including puking ones – 15 years ago in Meet the Feebles. It’s just a bit old hat to try to score points with that now.
Similarly, the whole “Lonely” song for Kim Jong Il is nothing but a scaled-down variation on Satan’s song of lament in South Park. Indeed, an entire Kim Jong Il plot is cobbled together from the Satan/Saddam Hussein framework in South Park.
None of this is to say that the absurd adventures of Team America — puppet commandoes who virtually destroy the world in order to make it safe for democracy — aren’t funny. Large chunks of the film are hysterical, including the much-touted puppet-sex scene that had to be abridged to secure an R rating. (Interesting side note: An almost identical sex scene, where only the shadows of Kathleen Turner and John Laughlin were seen, had to be entirely removed for Ken Russell’s Crimes of Passion to get an R.)
In fact, the filmmakers ought to thank the MPAA for insisting on the cuts, since even now the sequence, like nearly everything else in the film, goes on too long for its own good. And as a comedy, that’s the central problem with Team America. Parker and Stone hit on a funny idea and then keep hitting it long after the funniness subsides. Most of the songs, for example, are funny once, but not when repeated.
The movie goes out of its way to attack politically active actors, featuring members of the Film Actors Guild (F.A.G. — get it?) and generally portraying them as bumbling idiots. It seems to me that it’s patently hypocritical for the filmmakers to suggest that it’s somehow wrong for Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn, Michael Moore, etc., to hold political viewpoints, while it’s all right for Parker and Stone to do so.
And that brings us to the whole purported fence-sitting “fairness” of the movie. By and large, Team America employs a scattershot approach to its satire, but it’s curious that the only targets skewered by name are liberals. Michael Moore gets it in the neck, and yes, it’s funny when the Team America computer identifies him as a “giant socialist weasel.” But where’s the opposition? Why not toss some similar barbs at, say, Bill O’Reilly or Rush Limbaugh?
Hollywood left-wingers get savaged as incredibly stupid, but have any of them ever said anything that equals the lame-brained, right-wing opining of Britney Spears? Surely she’s ripe for satire, but she’s not in this film. Instead, we’re given a bit about the stupidity of Matt Damon that is built on a reference that’s already passed into obscurity: an old news story where Damon claimed to be taking politics seriously after his buddy Ben Affleck had explained its importance to him.
What’s most bizarre about Team America is that it seems to be pandering to a market that is going to be so put off by the film’s excesses in sex, language and gore that the movie hasn’t a prayer of winning over that market.
My guess is that Parker and Stone think they’ve covered all the bases by presenting Team America as a bunch of jingoistic buffoons who’d rather destroy Cairo or Paris than let a single WMD-toting terrorist (who couldn’t possibly inflict nearly so much carnage) get past them. It’s a clever notion, yes, but I fear it may have fallen prey to “Norman Lear syndrome.” Remember when Lear created All in the Family, with its dim-witted, bigoted Archie Bunker? It was never Lear’s intention that Bunker should be viewed as the good guy, but many Americans saw him that way.
I’m afraid the same is likely to be the case here with people who might be perfectly comfortable seeing the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, the pyramids and the Sphinx reduced to rubble, just as long as the good guys are kicking some terrorist ass in the process (after all, all these sites are in France and Egypt). And is it accidental that the one American monument that gets it — Mount Rushmore — is destroyed by Michael Moore?
Whatever the case, although I laughed at a lot of it, I can’t help but feel that the movie is irresponsible and more than a little creepy.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke