Sausage Party now holds the record for the highest-grossing August opening for an animated film, and that’s no great shock. In a relatively uncontested weekend for mainstream releases, the theater was packed when I screened it on Friday night. But the audience wasn’t exactly rolling in the aisles — and this is a significant point. While Sausage Party owes its success to a clever premise and a good gimmick, it falls short of fully delivering on its promise of “adult” animation. Sure, there’s ample vulgarity and explicit (albeit awkwardly anthropomorphized) sexual content, but there’s nothing approaching the narrative complexity of late-period South Park or even a Pixar film. (A throwaway gag involving a bumper sticker that reads “Dixar” should give you some degree of insight into the level of discourse on display here.) No, Sausage Party is not for kids, but it plays like something a kid might think constitutes adult humor.
It should be noted that I am an avid admirer of offensive comedy, and I’ve consistently enjoyed the films of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg from Superbad to This Is the End and everything in-between (though we won’t talk about Neighbors 2). Corollaries to the work of Trey Parker and Matt Stone are difficult to avoid here as well. While my illustrious predecessor held a long-standing — and largely understandable — grudge against those filmmakers due to their inadvertent appropriation of his surname as the appellation of a talking piece of yule-themed poo, I have never shared in his disdain for the duo. I’ve gone so far in defense of that pair’s work as to write an analysis of Team America’s influence on U.S. forces in the Iraqi and Afghan conflicts for a college class on war films. The comparison with South Park is apt on the basis of the tenor of Sausage Party’s humor (and an ill-advised opening musical number), if not its quality. What Rogen and Goldberg attempt to deliver with Sausage Party is, at best, a poor man’s Book of Mormon. Maybe my expectations for Sausage Party were too high. Or maybe I just wasn’t high enough.
The film hits all the notes you’d expect, and hits them reasonably well. The catch is that it never delves any deeper than its superficial smart-assery. Ostensibly, this film is intended to satirize both modern kids’ films and general religious conflict through an allegorical supermarket faith in which human customers are gods and the true believers among the animated consumables all aspire to be “chosen” and taken through the doors to “the great beyond.” That premise alone should be sufficient fodder for a fun, high-concept skewering of any number of sacred cows, but it never really goes beyond that one-note joke. And then we get to the interminable stereotyping: a constantly bickering nebbishy bagel and Muslim lavash; an African-American box of grits (“They call me MISTER GRITS!”); a closeted lesbian Latina taco; a gay Twinkie; the obligatory Irish potato — the list goes on and on. Even this on-the-nose writing wouldn’t have been enough to turn me off were the jokes only a little more incisive. Instead, I had visions of a writing room, choked with cannabis smoke, in which the ideas that seemed funny when a stoned scribe jotted them on the whiteboard became the entire skeleton of this story.
There are parts of the film that work, many of them visual. This thing looks like the hideously distorted fever dream of a deranged Disney exec. The first act climax lifts the Normandy invasion scene from Saving Private Ryan almost shot-for-shot — and it’s hilarious. But, like a lot of the film’s better moments, most of it was in the trailer. Most of the cast performs admirably, with Edward Norton almost unrecognizable in full Woody Allen mode as Sammy Bagel Jr. and Salma Hayek delivering a standout performance as the aforementioned taco with sapphic leanings. And yet, even the talented ensemble has its issues, with Kristen Wiig still managing to annoy me with only her voice and Danny McBride, typically a highlight for me, appearing in approximately two minutes of the film.
Ultimately, a profusion of expletives and insensitive jokes should have made Sausage Party a contender for my affections. But the laziness of the script quashed whatever hopes I had for a good laugh, and even the film’s indescribably bizarre food-orgy climax left me wishing the filmmakers had tried a little harder. It’s not that Sausage is a particularly bad film, but it is the cinematic equivalent of junk food, and this predominantly pun-based diet just didn’t quite satisfy like I had hoped. Rated R for sexual content, pervasive language and drug use.
Now Playing at Carolina Cinemark, Carmike 10, Regal Biltmore Grande, Epic of Hendersonville