One day in 1967 my parents loaded my five-year-old self and my two brothers into the Volkswagen, and off we all trooped to see Batman, the feature-length version of the high-camp TV series that starred Adam West and Burt Ward and lasted three glorious Bam! Kapow! years. Excitement was running high, for the black-and-white small-screen world with which I was familiar was giving way to the Technicolor wide screen. Robin’s uniform was red and green, like my beloved South Sydney Rabbitohs! The Penguin’s top hat was a luscious silken purple! Yet nothing could rescue the film from its intrinsic weirdness, and what I remember is the sense of being underwhelmed. Fast-forward 40 years, and despite that experience I was glass-half-full about The Simpsons Movie. These are among the finest comedy writers in the world, I thought. Nothing can go wrong.
The Simpsons Movie had a simultaneous worldwide opening, with almost no long-lead screenings. In North America the film took a whopping amount in its opening weekend; in Australia the figure was a healthy $2.3 million. From the start, it was hardly going to matter what the critics said. But it’s a problematic film, and I can’t help thinking that’s why the media weren’t waltzed into previews. Perhaps it’s a case of too much expectation: The Simpsons has been the most consistently brilliant television program of the past 20 years. Even though I believe, as do many, that it peaked for a few extraordinary years in the mid-’90s, I’ve never felt that the show has jumped the shark. It is now so familiar we can enter the lives of any of the deeply established minor characters and know their personalities, their place in Springfield. As for the long-suffering Marge, frustrated genius Lisa and the show’s central underachievers, Homer and Bart: however loopy the story that’s unfolding might be, being with them is like returning to a couch that’s deeply moulded to our contours. The Simpsons is always smart. It’s always funny. It’s gentle even at its most acidic and satirical. There it is in the box in the corner of our living rooms: every night, this bright little reflection of what it means to blunder through our hopelessness as the surreal world unfolds around us. So we love it. Yes. But when it comes to a film running to 90 minutes, will we love it three times more?
The film opens with an ‘Itchy and Scratchy’ cartoon, the resident show-within-the-show of the television series. The camera pulls back to reveal that the Simpson family is watching it in a cinema. Homer turns to the audience - us - and says, “Why should I pay for something I can watch for free on TV?” Ninety minutes later I was asking myself the same question. “If you ask me,” Homer continues, “everyone in this theatre is a big sucker. Especially you!” This is anxiety as a form of self-knowing. More self-referential chatter comes elsewhere, as when a news crawler appears along the bottom of the screen: “Watch Are You Smarter Than a Celebrity? on Fox. That’s right, we even advertize our shows during movies now.” This self-awareness is one of the elements that makes the series so delightfully barbed, even when a storyline is weak. But in a feature film far more is needed.
On the surface the plot is not unpromising: Homer inadvertently causes an environmental disaster in Springfield, and the Environmental Protection Agency, with the blessing of President Arnold Schwarzenegger, seals off the town in a giant dome. Can Homer redeem himself from his ultimate act of idiocy? Meanwhile, subplots abound. Lisa has a crush on the new boy in the neighbourhood, a similarly green-thinking arrival from Ireland (“No, Bono’s not my dad”). We see a lot of the familiar characters we love. Then again, what happened to Principal Skinner and Groundskeeper Willie? Selma and Patty? Sideshow Bob, one of the great Simpsons villains? The evergreen Troy McClure? Even Montgomery Burns barely registers a presence, despite delivering, when the town needs some of the power his nuclear plant generates, the great line, “Ahh - for once, the rich white man is in control.” Amid the chaos, Bart seems strangely lost. Worse, there’s a treacly subplot in which he sees in Ned Flanders the father he’s never had. Bart Simpson going fishing with Flanders by choice? That scene must have wandered in from a parallel universe.
For all its scattergun energy, The Simpsons Movie is tremendously compressed and zips along at a gag a minute. There are 11 screenwriters listed in the credits (including creator Matt Groening, producer and writer James L Brooks, and long-timer George Meyer), as well as four “consultant writers”, so you could guess that each looked after about ten gag moments. Everything moves with the whip-crack speed of a half-hour episode. And that’s the paradox: it makes the film feel like three episodes strung together. We’re in a cinema, and we expect something epic. At the same time we want to feel some of that familiar identification with the family’s small-town, small-screen ineptitude, epitomised by Homer Simpson.
What has always made Homer great is his unheroicness, his smallness. He’s a man of action in the worst sense, a man of reflex leading the unexamined life. Here, having stuffed up colossally and endangered the lives of the townspeople, he delivers to Marge, in his usual self-excusing way, one of the most poignant of Simpsons lines: “I don’t think about things. I just try to make the days not hurt until I can crawl into bed with you again.” This is beautiful, yet why are we hearing it out loud? The genius of the television series has always been that we know this through what Homer does, not through what he says. That aside, it’s the same old Homer on display. His thick-headed innocence is, as always, refreshing. Escaping the disaster in Springfield, he temporarily moves the family to a new life. “Alaska: a place where you can’t be too fat or too drunk,” he proclaims. “A place where no one says, ‘Let’s see your high-school equivalency certificate.’“
The film’s social targets work well enough too, though they don’t seem intrinsic to the enterprise. That the plot revolves around an environmental disaster seems arbitrary; the film-makers could have done worse, but it’s all a bit worthy (Lisa, in fact, makes a school documentary called ‘An Irritating Truth’). There are shots at other topics of the day, like Iraq: the government sends troops into a situation and makes it a whole lot worse. Here the storm-troopers are the EPA, headed by a dementedly wonderful Russ Cargill (Al Brooks), who has some of the best lines. He riffs to President Schwarzenegger (Harry Shearer), “You know sir, when you made me head of the EPA, you were applauded for appointing one of the most successful men in America to the least successful agency in government. And why did I take the job? Because I’m a rich man who wanted to give something back. Not the money, but something.”
Schwarzenegger gets a few good lines himself. When Cargill gives him the option of choosing from five different plans for Springfield, the president doesn’t want to hear the details, preferring to make a random choice: “Knowing things is over-rated ... It takes real leadership to pick something you’re clueless about ... OK, I pick three!”
Cargill: Try higher.
Cargill: You said three.
Cargill: There is no six.
Cargill: Double it.
Cargill: As you wish, sir.
I end with these lines because I wouldn’t want to dissuade you from seeing the film, though I see no reason why you shouldn’t wait for the DVD. The script purportedly went through 158 drafts - surely the kind of information that the producers would’ve tried desperately to suppress - and, of course, it is essential to get it right. Yet this seems to be a case of going about 145 drafts too far. It’s all so polished, and something of the reliable Simpsons anarchy has gone missing. You sit in that vast cinema space and the jokes pop like bubbles, one after the other, but there is a collective embarrassment at the lack of belly laughs. In the great arc that is the history of The Simpsons, this film will come to be seen as oddity rather than apotheosis.
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