“Team America: World Police”

The new film by "South Park" creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker starts off strong, but then resorts to lame anti-left jokes that could have been written by Ann Coulter.

Topics: Movies,

"Team America: World Police"

Good satire is nobody’s friend — it shows no mercy and has no agenda. But that’s not the same thing as not having a point of view. Ultimately, “Team America: World Police,” the new puppet satire from “South Park” creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, is so determined not to have a point of view that it cancels itself out in the manner of those CNN “debates” where two talking heads from opposing sides gainsay each other for five minutes.

“Team America” takes on America’s war on terrorism — and like good satirists, Parker and Stone have correctly identified the cant on each side. But instead of picking their way through this poop-laden cowfield, they’ve chosen instead to refuse all claims. And that stands contrary to the incisiveness and intelligence they display week after week on “South Park,” which manages to skewer all sorts of hypocrisy without ever giving in to cheap cynicism. “Team America,” for all its outrageousness, is the first work from Parker and Stone that I’d describe as a failure of nerve.

The title “Team America: World Police” neatly sums up the way much of the world looks at us right now, as a rah-rah concern that has taken it upon itself to act as neighborhood cop on a global scale. And the opening sections of the movie are everything you hoped they’d be. Stone and Parker and their co-writer Pam Brady have had the brilliant satirical stroke to treat Bush-era foreign policy as if it were an ’80s action movie. It’s the unholy marriage of Donald Rumsfeld and Jerry Bruckheimer, complete with power ballads.

Team America, a paramilitary group of government-sanctioned operatives working from their headquarters deep inside Mt. Rushmore, jet all over the world fighting the enemies of freedom — especially those with turbans and hook noses. In the first scenes, men of that description carrying steel briefcases with blinking lights are all set to carry out their nefarious deeds in the heart of Paris. Enter Team America who defeat them handily — at the cost of destroying the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre. It’s a reductio ad absurdum demonstration of the “it became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it” mentality, the thing that’s playing itself out right now in Iraq.



Part of what’s so funny about the first part of “Team America” is that Parker and Stone have managed to satirize movies that, because they were so vulgar and bullying and ludicrous, seemed to be impossible to satirize. They’ve got the clichés of ’80s action movies cold: There’s the tragedy haunting one T.A. member; the talented but unsteady rookie who has his own trauma to overcome, which he will inevitably face at a crucial moment; there’s the unexplained resentment a team member feels for the new guy; the tangled romantic alliances, and so on.

The mimicry of the technical aspects of those pictures is note-perfect. The cinematography by Bill Pope (who shot the “Matrix” movies) fetishizes the armature and mayhem on display. When Team America planes zoom out of their mountain HQ, a bad ’80s-style number “America, Fuck Yeah!” blasts on the soundtrack. (There’s even a slow version, the “Bummer Remix” for a more, uh, introspective moment.) And there’s a priceless montage shot on location in Washington where Gary, the rookie, accepts his awesome Team America responsibilities by gazing on the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol building. All the while, a country ballad that goes “What would yew dew for frayh-dom?” plays on the soundtrack. (As “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” demonstrated, Trey Parker is a whiz at musical parody.)

The movie also has a great Bond-movie evil mastermind, Kim Jong Il (or as Jesse Helms once referred to him in the Senate, “Kim Jong Two”). With his chubby cheeks and beady eyes magnified by huge glasses, his elongated forehead and black pompadour, the North Korean dictator looks like the love child of Mao and Conway Twitty. Parker and Stone have used the hoary old trick of having him confuse his L’s and his R’s, and if you’re above laughing at that, you’re a better person than I am. (The highlight of Kim’s locutions comes in his ballad about the sadness of being an absolute dictator, “I’m So Ronery.”)

In interviews, Parker and Stone have talked about what they called the hell of working with marionettes. Cleverly, they’ve incorporated some of that clumsiness into the movie, getting laughs out of the bouncing unnatural way their puppets walk. Unfortunately, those jokes don’t entirely absolve the basic problem that we’re watching physically clumsy movement. That they sustain it for as long as they do is remarkable — and those creepy “Thunderbirds”-like puppets, their expressions reflecting the blankness the movie is satirizing, works for the film — but the awkwardness starts taking a toll on the laughs and the timing.

The main problem though is that while Parker and Stone have come up with a satirical idea with which to satirize the gung-ho right, they haven’t come up with anything comparably sharp about left-wing Hollywood. It’s not as if the left hasn’t given satirists anything to seize on. And stars who make public statements as self-righteous as Sean Penn and Tim Robbins have are ripe for satire. They’re just begging to be taken down a peg. When a Sean Penn marionette talks about seeing children playing peacefully in chocolate rivers on his trip to Iraq, the movie scores a bull’s eye. But most of the anti-left jokes here could have been written by Ann Coulter.

In the movie’s scheme, Alec Baldwin heads a coalition of stars who believe themselves smart enough to do a better job running the world. They succeed in finding a sponsor for an international peace conference, Kim Jong Il. Kim plans to gather the world’s elite in North Korea and then unleash his weapon’s of mass destruction to bring global chaos.

The idea here, that stars who speak out against war are actually aiding the terrorists, is the same one touted by countless right-wing columnists. It’s the same argument made by people who ascribe to the “let’s kick some ass” patriotism that Stone and Parker are satirizing in the movie’s opening sections. As a satirical springboard, it doesn’t go far enough. By the time the stars are taking up arms to stop Team America from attacking Kim Jong Il, the picture seems to have lost its satirical grasp.

A letter to the New York Times this week is (unintentionally) a better piece of satire than anything in the last half of “Team America.” A woman who watched the second presidential debate with her 8-year-old son so the boy could see an example of wisdom and maturity in John Kerry was “disturbed … by Mr. Kerry’s harsh language about hunting down and killing the terrorists. I would have preferred less barbaric phrasing.” She goes on, “I’d rather that [my son] see himself as a citizen of a country that brings enemies to justice, rather than a country where the word ‘kill’ is necessary to win votes.” Isn’t what’s most appalling about the reaction to terrorism from some sections of the left this idea that terrorists will listen to reason? Wouldn’t it have been funnier, and more accurate, not to show the stars killing for peace but being so dedicated to peace they’d be willing to tolerate any atrocity?

For all the epithets that have flown back and forth on “South Park,” I’ve always felt that Parker and Stone could make the distinction between satirizing prejudice and milking it for laughs. But the constant gay jokes in “Team America” left me queasy. The Hollywood stars in the movie represent a group called the Film Actors’ Guild, and they’re shown with identifying legends like “Alec Baldwin F.A.G.” Or we hear them saying that not resorting to violence is “the F.A.G. way.” A fellow critic made the argument to me that Stone and Parker are satirizing the macho mindset of action movies. I don’t think so. The jokes aren’t being put in the mouths of a character in the film (the way anti- Semitism is satirized in “South Park” by putting it in the mouth of Cartman); they’re being made by the filmmakers.

Early on there’s a brilliant parody of “Rent” (called “Lease”) where we see the multicultural cast perform the finale “Everyone Has AIDS,” and it’s not in the least homophobic. With lyrics like “Come on everybody/We got quilting to do,” the number scores points off Broadway self-aggrandizement and the pathetic quality of politics reduced to showy symbols.

When Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day sings “Maybe I am the faggot America” in the band’s new song “American Idiot,” he’s talking about how the right characterizes people who don’t go along with their agenda. I think that same sort of characterization is being practiced in “Team America.” At the risk of sounding like one of those killjoys who Parker and Stone satirize, gayness here is constantly associated with weakness and subservience.

In a Salon interview this week with Heather Havrilesky, Parker said, “Our lives are pretty fucking great. And a lot of the lives we see around us are pretty fucking great, and everything’s gonna be OK. That’s just our basic philosophy.” Are these the guys who should be making fun of celebrity insularity?

In the interview Parker and Stone claimed that, despite what some people think of them, they do care about things. And I don’t think anyone who’d ever watched “South Park” would doubt that. In some ways, I think that show is basically decent and goodhearted. But they’ve deadened that part of themselves in “Team America.” This is just about the first time I think Parker and Stone have come off as acting above it all.

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>