September 2007

Arts & Letters

Ho-Diddly-Hum

By Luke Davies
David Silverman’s ‘The Simpsons Movie’

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.

Schwarzenegger: Five!

Cargill: Lower.

Schwarzenegger: One?

Cargill: Higher.

Schwarzenegger: Three?

Cargill: You said three.

Schwarzenegger: Six?

Cargill: There is no six.

Schwarzenegger: Two?

Cargill: Double it.

Schwarzenegger: Four!

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.

Luke Davies

Luke Davies is a novelist, screenplay writer and poet. He is the author of Candy, God of Speed, Totem (the winner of the Age Book of the Year in 2004) and Interferon Psalms (winner of the Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2012). 

September 2007

From the front page

Image of Minister for Skills Michaelia Cash

Cash-strapped

The looming training overhaul will need to be watched closely

Cold was the ground: ‘Sorry for Your Trouble’

Richard Ford delivers an elegant collection of stories of timeworn men and women contemplating the end

Photograph of Malcolm Turnbull

Surrounded by pygmies: Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘A Bigger Picture’

The former PM’s memoir fails to reckon with his fatal belief that all Australians shared his vision

Child's illustration

The screens that ate school

What do we really know about the growing presence of Google, Apple, Microsoft and more in the education system?


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

HMAS Melbourne & HMAS Voyager

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

El pollo loco

‘No One Belongs Here More Than You’ by Miranda July

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Full house


More in Arts & Letters

Photograph of Malcolm Turnbull

Surrounded by pygmies: Malcolm Turnbull’s ‘A Bigger Picture’

The former PM’s memoir fails to reckon with his fatal belief that all Australians shared his vision

Still from ‘The Assistant’

Her too: ‘The Assistant’

Melbourne-born, New York–based filmmaker Kitty Green’s powerfully underplayed portrait of Hollywood’s abusive culture

Photograph of Dua Lipa

Snap-back: Dua Lipa’s ‘Future Nostalgia’

The British singer’s serendipitous album delivers shining pop with a reigning attitude of fortitude

Still from ‘The Platform’

Consolations in isolation: ‘The Platform’ and ‘Free in Deed’

What is the future of cinema without cinemas?


More in Film

Still from ‘The Assistant’

Her too: ‘The Assistant’

Melbourne-born, New York–based filmmaker Kitty Green’s powerfully underplayed portrait of Hollywood’s abusive culture

Still from ‘The Platform’

Consolations in isolation: ‘The Platform’ and ‘Free in Deed’

What is the future of cinema without cinemas?

Image from ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’

Properly British: Armando Iannucci’s ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’

A multicultural vision underscores the acclaimed British satirist’s endearing Dickensian romp

Image from ‘Honeyland’

They came, they saw: Tamara Kotevska and Ljubomir Stefanov’s ‘Honeyland’

A breathtaking North Macedonian film about Europe’s last female keeper of wild bees exists compellingly at the intersection of documentary and fiction


Read on

Cold was the ground: ‘Sorry for Your Trouble’

Richard Ford delivers an elegant collection of stories of timeworn men and women contemplating the end

Image of Australians queuing at Centrelink in Brisbane.

Moral bankruptcy

Robodebt stemmed from the false ideological division between the deserving and undeserving poor, but the government still clings to moralistic language

Image of Gough Whitlam in October 1975

It’s about time

The High Court’s landmark ruling on the ‘Palace Papers’ is a win for Australian social democracy

Image of Robyn Davidson

Something mythic

For Robyn Davidson, her acclaimed memoir ‘Tracks’ was an act of freedom whose reception hemmed her in


×
×