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The Simpletons

The Stop Smiling Film Review

(20th Century Fox)

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Thursday, August 02, 2007

By Nick Pinkerton

The Simpsons Movie
Directed by David Silverman
(20th Century Fox)

Reviewed by Nick Pinkerton

The long-deferred release of a Simpsons feature film has uncorked an attendant deluge of press tribute, not so much inspired by the individual merits of the film — which, by simple virtue of outperforming the recent vintage of TV episodes, has garnered a generalized “Thumbs Up” — but rather in surveying the accumulated Simpsons legacy, now spanning two decades, of which the film symbolizes something of a culmination.

The venerable brainchild of Matt Groening first appeared as part of the then-nascent FOX Network’s Class of ’87 Sunday night lineup, attached to The Tracy Ullman Show. What The Simpsons — even in its protoplasmic, shakily-animated form — shared with the best of the early FOX programming was the willingness to eviscerate established sitcom format, playing alongside such fare as Married… with Children (working title, tellingly: ‘Not the Cosby Show’ — and very funny before it descended into lumpenprole demagoguery), It’s Garry Shandling’s Show (a Showtime carry-over) and, most importantly, Chris Elliott’s short-lived chef d’oeuvre, Get a Life. Even if the subsequent sum total of the FOX Network’s influence on American culture has been to lower our median national IQ by around 15 points, this brief blossoming was a close to a Golden Age of American Television as I’ve ever seen — an artistic achievement to shame much of HBO and Showtime’s middlebrow serial pulp.

The sole holdover from these pioneer years is, of course, Springfield’s first family. During the course of their unprecedented prime time reign, The Simpsons have developed from a generational phenomenon to a cultural institution, the inside joke that everyone’s in on. If there is such a thing as cult populism, The Simpsons embodies it. Through the years it’s rolled on, gathering new initiates, spawning lifelong devotees, as well as an ever-growing number of apostates who grouse that the show today is a blanched echo of, say, seasons 2-8, and that it’s been sustaining its ratings on rehashed plots, over-deliberate outlandishness, and the force of fanboy habit (I’d generally put myself among the disillusioned — and though I’ll admit I haven’t really been watching enough to place the merits of one latter-day season again another, the general decline is unmistakable).

Much has been made of the strange bedfellows marriage between Simpsons series creator Groening, apprenticed in “alternative” weeklies and very much a product of counterculture thinking, and the FOX Network, overlorded by archconservative Rupert Murdoch, a dependable panderer to the basest of human instincts. (At one point in The Simpsons Movie, Bart, with a bra strapped onto his head as a pair of Mickey Mouse ears, pipes up in a reedy voice: “I’m the mascot of an evil corporation”; it doesn’t take too much asperity to think, “Takes one to know one, dude.”) I’m not trying to denigrate the unquestionable accomplishment of Groening’s show — which, at its peak, was as stringently funny as anything that’s ever been on air. But any analysis of What It All Means must necessarily look at the nature of The Simpsons’ much-touted subversion, which so often resembles NBC-era Letterman’s kid-gloves ribbing of GE.

But the history of mass appeal in the American media is, finally, a history of compromise — of smuggling ideas into formulae dictated by insipid familiarity, and the show’s staff has had to learn from experience just how far they can take a gag. Longtime writer George Meyer describes the series as “like a Trojan horse that gets past people's radar, because it's superficially conservative. The show's subtext, however, is completely subversive and wild." David Mirkin, the co-creator and writer of Get A Life who went on to contribute to the salad days of The Simpsons, accredits the show’s outliving G.A.L. to the simple fact that you can get away with a lot more on TV, thanks to the remove from reality that animation provides, suggesting that both series’ brands of humor were essentially the same. I’d say this is only partially true: Get A Life was, bar none, one of the most uncompromised pieces of work ever broadcast, a flatly nihilistic hemorrhage of despair set to a laugh track. The joke at the core of the show was that Elliott’s manchild Chris Peterson, brainwashed by televised bromides, was utterly uncomprehending of how far removed his own roundly pathetic experience was from the mediated life he’d been suckled on. It was not only, as one critic put it, the “anti-sitcom,” but a wholesale assault on TV culture, suburban placidity and, ultimately, human life. The Simpsons, for all its anarchic bent, never abandons the familiar frameworks of familial crisis and resolution, always falling back on those moments when Homer’s voice quavers and he emerges from his self-absorption to learn a Very Valuable Lesson.

To a remarkable degree though, The Simpsons franchise has managed to have it both ways throughout the years, emerging with cred intact — it’s one of those shows that even people who don’t watch TV used to watch — and this in spite of irresponsible branding as unconscionable as anything spawned in the offices of Jim Davis’ Paws, Inc. (The Simpsons Sing the Blues, branded 7-Elevens, Bart’s Nightmare for the SEGA Genesis and a truly awful Konami arcade game, hawking Butterfinger bars…). What’s largely missing in the press’ wreathing The Simpsons in American Masterpiece laurels is a touch of phlegmatic distance; a comparison to Bill Watterson, the other great man of American popular cartooning over the last 20 years, might be instructive. Watterson’s Calvin is roughly a contemporary of Bart Simpson, born into syndication in late 1985, but his creator did not license out his meal ticket, taking a vocal stance against such filthy lucre that speaks louder than quite a bit of “satire.” (Not that Watterson’s scruples have prevented his creation from showing up in the rear windshield of every pickup in America, peeing on most anything you could think of.)

Which brings us to The Simpsons Movie, the latest tie-in, born of a Groening storyline, then filigreed with gags by a brain trust of 11 series’ veterans, including Mirkin and stalwart John Schwartzwelder, (Here again is evidence that The Simpsons receives an unprecedented amount of good faith from critics: Any other movie to come so crowded with screenwriter credits would immediately be taken as a sign of desperation.) Despite an opening self-reflexive gag, in which Homer turns to chastise the audience of an Itchy and Scratchy Movie for “paying for something they get for free on TV,” the film takes its duty to deliver sheer scale seriously. It is big, bombastic and genuinely jazzed on the possibilities of filling all that Widescreen space. When the credits roll, here’s what the scoreboard’s like: a few good jokes tartly tossed off (the clientele of a bar and a church switching in a panic with the news of incoming disaster), as well as a plenty of middling ones (Spider-Pig, pushed heavy in TV spots and brought out for one curtain call too many) and an over-abundance of interminable Homer-fall-down-go-boom gags, always a staple of the program, though ever-more-heavily relied on. The consensus is right: It’s only pretty funny, which is all it needed to be.






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