Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Precarious Move to the Big Screen

To begin discussing The Simpsons Movie, it would be tough to beat the first lines of A.O. Scott’s review in the New York Times:
I have long been of the opinion that the entire history of American popular culture — maybe even of Western civilization — amounts to little more than a long prelude to "The Simpsons." I don't think I'm alone in this belief.
He's not alone in that belief. I share it, and I'm sure many others do, too. I know a few of them.

Like so many fans of the show, I find myself quoting it often. I know how dorky this is (and how annoying to those who don't share the belief outlined above, though I don't care as much about them, since they're so wrong) -- but I'm convinced the habit is more defensible than attending Star Trek conventions or even quoting other funny enterprises, like Monty Python. Most hardcore fans of other cultural phenomenons gather together or recite well-known phrases to each other because the phenomenon represents another universe, a world away from our world. The language between them is a secret one. Quotes and scenes from "The Simpsons," though, frequently come to mind because some real-life situation has been perfectly mirrored/satirized/predicted by the show. I sometimes find myself describing a scene to someone who's not even a fan because of how well it illustrates (and comments on) something we’ve just experienced together. Do these people want to slap me? Of course they do. That's not the point.

The point is that "The Simpsons" has had something trenchant and hilarious to say about almost everything: conservatism, liberalism, religion, atheism, political corruption, political ineptitude, greed, charity, neighborliness, city life, suburban anomie, suburban consolations, parenting, schooling, work life, race relations, alcoholism, aging, the absurdity of newscasts, the absurdity of television, entrepreneurialism, laziness, immigration, assimilation, celebrity worship, young love, stale love, enduring love, the cruelty of children, environmentalism, gambling, vegetarianism, and space exploration. To name a few. This is to say nothing of the creativity the show brings to bear on those issues -- the expert parodies, the visual gags, the sprawling-but-contained-and-knowable universe of Springfield.

Here I have to admit I'm of the school (the majority school, I'm almost certain) that believes the show lost some of its power after Season 8. Partly this is because genius is difficult to maintain, especially when you’re burning through subjects/targets on a weekly basis. (What’s incredible is that the show’s peak lasted so long, for something like six seasons, with Season 4 representing a high mark for pop culture from which we’ll probably just keep plummeting.) Also, I think the show, however unconsciously, was influenced by the appearance of shows like "Family Guy," which piled on pop-cultural allusions and sight gags at a breakneck pace with little subtlety. At its best, the pace of "The Simpsons" was fast, but not reckless. It may have lost that perfect pitch, but it's still vastly superior to its competition.

As A.O. Scott goes on to say in that first paragraph:
But it does not follow that The Simpsons Movie represents a creative peak toward which the show’s 18 seasons and 400 episodes have been a long, slow climb. Let's keep things in perspective. "The Simpsons" is an inexhaustible repository of humor, invention and insight, an achievement without precedent or peer in the history of broadcast television, perhaps the purest distillation of our glories and failings as a nation ever conceived. The Simpsons Movie is, well, a movie.
True enough. The movie is fun, and a must-see for anyone who's ever worshipped the show, for however long. There are plenty of laughs, though a few groan-inducing moments, too (like an overlong scene in which Homer is swung back and forth on a wrecking ball between a giant rock and a bar called “A Hard Place”), which the show almost never had until the middle of its run. The plot is similar to a few episodes, involving the environmental degradation of Springfield (there’s a multi-eyed squirrel that recalls the three-eyed fish in the second season) and the eventual quarantining of the town. Other familiar elements include the straining of Marge and Homer's marriage due to the latter's carelessness, Ned Flanders' concern for the Simpsons children, and a desperate attempt to avoid the total destruction of Springfield. It's funnier than just about everything Hollywood tries to pass off as comedy these days, but it wouldn't make a list of the best 40 episodes of the TV show. It also gives minor characters a few lines, but there's something inevitably unsatisfying about the juggling of the cast, whereas the show was often strongest when it focused a story’s arc on one supporting player in particular, like when Apu wanted to become a U.S. citizen.

Over the years, the show has spent a lot of energy on show-stopping scenes like this one:

Ironically, on the big screen, it doesn't aim quite that high. The visuals are rich, and occasionally arresting, but the structure of the story and the nature of the jokes are modest, average by the show's standards. Luckily, average for this clan is superlative for almost everyone else.


Blogger Kraig said...

A great scene from my favorite episode. In fact, my favorite moment from ALL of The Simpsons follows about 30 seconds later when Burns discovers the kids and says, "Here's a phone. Call someone who cares." And then Bart starts to dial 9-1-1. "Give me that!" Ahhh...comedy.

7:12 PM  

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