Existential Detectives and Sexual Puppets

BY LEE ROWLAND

Team American World Police
I “Heart” Huckabees

So you’re seriously depressed about the election. You’re looking for the American fix: a good funny movie…or some smack. And since you’re a member of the Harvard student body, rarely known for its geographical adventurousness, either way that means walking to Harvard Square. This weekend, the Square Loews is still offering two rather irreverent comedies perfect not to take your parents to: I ‘Heart’ Huckabees and Team America: World Police.

I saw both, excited for Team America and catching Huckabees on an almost reluctant whim. If you haven’t seen them yet, you may have read mixed reviews for both. This, however, is a firmly partisan review. Huckabees is the best thing to hit nihilism since the wet marmot in The Dude’s tub, and Team America is pretty lame.

I feel as though putting a bad review of Team America in print is close to sacrilegious, but I’ve just gotta buck the trend and say this movie sucks. Matt Stone and Trey Parker dropped the ball on this one, forgoing their normally acid-tongued social commentary for run-of-the-mill bigotry that we could see any night on Fox for free. This may come as a shock to anyone who has seen my South Park collection, or heard me quote Baseketball (“dude, we said no more Journey psych-outs”) or even sing the lyrics (!) to one of the songs from Cannibal: the Musical, Matt and Trey’s mercifully unavailable first cinematic attempt after Colorado University film school.

The point is, I’m certainly not too P.C. to laugh at dick and fart jokes. I would probably vote for Cartman for president, although his evil genius rivals Karl Rove’s. More importantly, with regards to Team America, I can deal with racist accents, and admit I giggled at Kim Jong Il’s stereotypical Korean lilt in the Team America previews. To prove my puerile and amoral credentials, two of my favorite episodes of South Park involve objectifying minorities in wholly offensive and unfair ways and accents. In Big Gay Al’s Big Gay Boatride, Stan’s new dog is gay (“Don’t be Gay, Sparky”), and the introduction of Big Gay Al provides 23 minutes of homosexual stereotyping, replete with the most obscene lisp and short shorts you’ve ever witnessed. Another episode, Child Abuse is Not Funny, pits the lone Chinese resident of South Park single-handedly against the Mongolians (or, repeatedly and notoriously, the ‘Mongorians”), because the white South Parkians believe him to be the only resident qualified to build a city wall (“shitty wahr”). It is, in short, incredibly racist. But how did I find myself laughing at these things when I’m about to slam Team America for being little more than empty racism?

The main differences lie in, cheesily enough, the ultimate morality of the messages. In Boatride, Stan finds his dog among an accepting family with Big Gay Al, and to get Sparky back, Stan is forced to accept not just Sparky, but his canine sexuality as well. In Child Abuse, Tuong Lu Kim, the lone Chinese character is the only resident with competence or courage, and the South Park parents get their comeuppance when they realize that their own children fill out the ranks of the racially stereotyped Mongolian hordes. Trey and Matt use their plot lines to further a resigned and humorous libertarian worldview. Most every episode of South Park, including the film, seem to get away with their equal-opportunity offending because usually we laugh at those who, at the same time, the creators portray as misunderstood or often even morally superior. Yes, it’s Comedy Central morality, but so is The Daily Show.

Now comes Team America, in a not nearly so defensible vein. A global policing force of stop-action marionettes enlists a Broadway actor to infiltrate a terrorist plot led by North Korea (no recognizable voices besides director Parker and writer Stone). The character of puppet Kim Jong Il, the source of pretty much all non-puppet-string humor, revolves almost entirely around his accent (proof: his overlong solo, “I’m so rone-ry…”); the lead character, to become the team’s vaguely Middle Eastern terrorist mole, gets some bad facial hair and – I shit you not – a towel on his head for his undercover costume. Now, maybe it’s just because I’ve heard Stern and O’Reilly callers use the word “towel-head,” or because I don’t think Matt and Trey are subtly trying to illuminate Kim’s hidden underdog wisdom, but I don’t think these guys are being equal-opportunity offenders in this film. Instead, what they are doing is simply giving a visual representation of actual, present American stereotypes of people we’re supposed to hate.

And what’s worse, there’s literally not much joke writing beyond the stereotypes and actual physical puppet string humor, like vibrating strings during sex scenes. The script read by live actors would be a bad version of the poor actionless parts of a Bruckheimer script. Yes, my friend who is a puppeteer loved the movie. If you’re a puppeteer, and have any off sense of humor, you should probably go see this. The string parts were pretty funny, but only made up 10 minutes of the movie. Sometimes they mock liberal celebrities; also pretty funny but a one-trick pony. I’d rather rent a Muppets collection. And I should disclose that among my friends who’ve seen it, I’m in the vast minority on Team America: they thought it was awesome. They’re all guys, though.

And lest you all think I’ve simply lost my ability to laugh riotously at foreign policy along with the election, uh, I may have. But I saw these movies first. I want to be absolutely clear: my chief complaint is not that Team America is offensive (I knew that going in); it’s that it was unbelievably, unimaginatively, repetitively BORING. With the subtlety gone, Team America simply invites you to revel in the nihilistic barbarizing of current events. I fell asleep, as I often do watching Fox News. Maybe only men and/or Bush voters can truly appreciate this movie.

However, if you want to see nihilism get an emotional spanking (which I personally feel is more productive) in the form of a messy, endearing comedy, see David O. Russell’s I ‘Heart’ Huckabees instead. The preview kind of annoyed me, and I wasn’t the only one who thought the ‘Heart’ rather than a ‘Love’ in the title was unnecessary. It’s definitely a rambling movie, filled with odd characters I didn’t have much hope for. Two existentialist detectives (Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman) insinuate themselves into the lives of a poet/environmental activist (Jason Schwartzman), a Huckabees Corporation tightass executive (Jude Law) and his girlfriend (Naomi Watts), and a sensitive but dispassionate firefighter (Mark Wahlberg), vying for their subjects’ philosophical devotion against a lusty French nihilist (famous Frenchie Isabelle Huppert). The plot’s not that important.

I’m not the biggest Hoffman fan, Lily Tomlin is frighteningly lithe for her age, and pseudo-protagonist Schwartzman looks so eerily like Magnolia-era longhair Tom Cruise and yet is so obviously the dork from Rushmore, it’s totally disconcerting. But like both of the other David O. Russell films I’ve seen (Three Kings and Spanking the Monkey), this film comes together with a bang: a loony ride through real human psyches, this time as a darkish ensemble comedy. (I’ve heard his other comedy, Flirting With Disaster with Ben Stiller, is also pretty good.) Tomlin and Hoffman run around screen in completely inappropriate ways, breaking every privacy barrier of everyone in the cast. I cackled my ass off at such highlights as the May-December mud sex scene, Schwartzman and a disheveled Wahlberg at dinner with evangelicals and their African ward, Watt’s nervous pride over her and Law’s “seven minutes of heaven”, 65-year old Tomlin ass-up (in heels) in a garbage can, and Wahlberg’s insistence on riding his bicycle to fire alarms in full fighting regalia. Mark Wahlberg is simply incredible. He goes above and beyond his depth in Three Kings to be a tortured man struggling desperately for philosophical meta-truth, prone to outbursts and doing his best karmic duty
as a deeply impractical environmentalist. I also liked Hoffman, blithely sporting a mod hairdo and running through lawn sprinklers.

But what you won’t get from Huckabees are any philosophical answers; the film doesn’t really delve into the tenets of existentialism so much as show that pristine life philosophies are seriously subject to the dysfunction of human relationships. This film mocks those thinking truth is some weekend retreat, and it does so originally, if weirdly, rather than simply echo xenophobia. If you’re looking for insulting, go with Team America, but if you want wacko, go with I ‘Heart’ Huckabees. They both make fun of liberals, and will play into your nihilism. But I would be lying if I said Huckabees can offer you marionette intercourse.

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