An irritating truth

The Simpsons Movie, in ridiculing greens while defending the Everyman who’s under attack everywhere else, is the sharpest satire around.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Culture

Since The Simpsons first began its ascent to the Mount Olympus of popular culture as a short on the American Tracy Ullman Show in the late 1980s, many lesser animated lights have leapfrogged it on to the big screen.

Beavis and Butthead and South Park spring to mind, as does, unfortunately, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Now, with over 400 episodes under its belt, The Simpsons finally gets a big-screen outing – not that its existence as a televisual staple is necessarily a boon. Self-referential to a fault, Homer’s first lines capture the concern. ‘I can’t believe we’re paying to see something we can get on TV for free’, he complains while watching a cinematic version of Itchy and Scratchy, before casting a knowing eye at us, the cinema audience.

But being aware of the audience’s scepticism is not the same as overcoming it. Throughout the film you sometimes get the sense that, aside from a few injections of CGI and the odd ‘spot-a-rare-character’ panorama, there is little substantial difference between the movie and watching four episodes back-to-back. Perhaps, though, as its legion of fans will testify, this is no bad thing. Indeed, for sheer quantity and diversity of jokes there is little around to rival The Simpsons Movie. This ranges from an assortment of quickfire put-downs and brilliant sight-gags to one of the most affectionate portrayals of bestiality since Gene Wilder’s amour de mouton in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex. ‘Maybe we should kiss just to break the tension’…never have such lines had such poignancy.

Unfortunately, when this is stretched over nearly 90 minutes, monotony does creep in. The machine-like consistency of it all brings to mind some sort of comedy sweatshop, with line managers constantly monitoring the gag-to-minute ratio – ‘No rest for the witty, Matt’. This, I should add, is not to endorse the painfully quaint cottage-industry approach of British comedy, where it sometimes seems that little has changed since Clockwise, but simply to suggest that what works well for a 25-minute long episode needs something else to sustain it over four times that length. Luckily, that ‘something else’ comes principally in the form of Homer’s redemption, a narrative arc that begins with his unthinking selfishness, continues with his exile first from Springfield, then from his family, before a spiritual epiphany leads him to realise that ‘without other people (he) is nothing.’ From selfish boor to selfless bore in less than an hour-and-a-half – a lesson to us all there.

Such a modern-day road-to-Damascus does, admittedly, sound a little, well, mawkish. But what gives it its edge, and The Simpsons its satirical reputation, is the way in which the comedic travails of the Simpsons allow for a particular rendering of how we live now. Unsurprisingly perhaps, given it’s the cultural equivalent of white noise, the background to the family’s lives in The Simpsons Movie is environmentalism, both as impending catastrophe and moral landscape. Hence Homer’s supreme act of selfishness involves dumping a silo of pig excrement in Springfield Lake, and Lisa – always the voice of the Good – becomes a pint-sized eco-warrior.

The refraction of environmental themes in the Simpsons’ universe is not one-sided, however. While the portrayal of Springfield’s inhabitants as indifferent to the ecological danger lurking within their midst suggests a fit of Geldofitis – ‘just clean the fucking lake’ – those suffering said affliction come in for a fair bit of mockery, too. Lisa, so angered is she by peoples’ inactivity, goes on a book tour with the title, An Irritating Truth. And Russ Cargill’s explanation to President Schwarzenegger as to why he took the job as head of the Environmental Protection Agency is beautifully done: ‘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.’

Whether it’s the voice of state or corporation (a banner reads ‘Duff Beer – binge responsibly’), exposing hypocrisy is never far from the surface. The charge, however, tends to be levelled not at the message but the double standards of its propagators. The environmental agenda in particular is accepted; it’s just certain elocuters who are deemed problematic.

Such consent to the uncontested has ramifications. For while it may be funny – and The Simpsons Movie certainly knows how to tell ’em – its satirical impulse is blunted. Part of the problem is that, deriving from leftish, anti-establishment origins, it now finds itself, whether it likes it or not, part of the establishment. Cultural ascendancy ill-befits the satiric impulse. Its hippyish mistrust of the powers-that-be, whether political or corporate, doesn’t so much slaughter sacred cows as milk them. Creativity is stymied. Matt Groening may have once said he used cartoons to address reality, but you now have to wonder to what extent The Simpsons is still able to do this. It now deals less with how things are, than their preconception. The problem, then, is not its satirical bite exactly, but the absence of anything to really sink its teeth into.

‘Reality’ is, if you like, already satirised. From the power-crazed mad men in the white house, to a fat, complacent Middle America, numbed by consumerism, this, the satirised object, is taken by too many to be the reality. While it attacks an old-fashioned authoritarianism with one hand, the film connives at a softer, more insidious version with the other.

In a strange twist, then, its commitment to the Simpson family unit, in all its glorious dysfunctionality, constitutes its most satirical achievement. There, a genuine feeling for the hopes and frustrations of the Everyman who is ridiculed everywhere else, undercuts the cosy, official satire that would pronounce on them. This warmth redeems the film from any righteous condemnation that would quarantine the family, and ruin the movie. And it’s this core commitment to the ordinary that saves The Simpsons – both the ongoing series and this film – from feeling as jaundiced as its characters look.

Tim Black is a regular film and TV review for spiked.

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