Movie Review: “Sausage Party” marries theological inquiry and full-throttle filth in cartoon form.
It can be argued that the act of criticism itself is invalid on an almost fundamental level. One of the reasons that this hypothesis could technically stand up to scrutiny is because we, as critics, are never going into a movie with a totally objective opinion about it. It can be something as specific as a grudge we hold against a certain filmmaker, or, say, a bit of news we received earlier that day that affected our mood going into the movie. My point, I guess, is that very few critics walk into any film with zero predisposed notion as far as what to expect. We have now entered an era where movie buzz has taken on a life of its own, to sometimes disastrous ends (see: the ongoing garbage fire that is the DC Films production slate), which means it’s more important than ever that critics are honest with themselves about why they might react a certain way to a certain film.
How does all of this conjecture affect my opinion of the summer’s new hard-R animated comedy, “Sausage Party”? To be honest, only tangentially. I found the movie’s trailers more groan-inducing than genuinely funny, and of course, the dick-centric stoner humor that Rogen has patented and continued to practice into the middle phase of his career has had its many peaks and valleys. So imagine my surprise when “Sausage Party” turned out to be not only riotously, unreasonably funny, but also genuinely subversive in spots and animated with a degree of visual sophistication that is on par with any of the Pixar films. That’s right, people: an animated head trip of a stoner comedy starring a gang of processed lunch meats, hot dog buns and ethnically specific foodstuffs is one of the funniest movies of the year. It’s as audacious and conceptually committed as anything Rogen and company have ever had a hand in creating, and while it has its occasional lull patches and jokes that don’t quite land, there’s something about the full-tilt devotion to scatological chaos here that is… well, sort of inspiring. Woe to the unsuspecting parties who eat lunch before walking into this demented vomitorium of a comedy. One can only hope they make a quick and merciful run to the exit aisles when the movie’s brilliant, nauseating home stretch finally comes.
The novelty of a naughty, R-bordering-on-X-rated comedy is nothing new. Trey Parker and Matt Stone were lobbing spitballs at the polite sensibilities of Middle American audiences nearly twenty years ago with their animated comedy “South Park,” which “Sausage Party” resembles in plenty of ways. There’s also the continual output of “Family Guy” prankster Seth MacFarlane who, unlike Parker and Stone, seems to enjoy cruelty and button-pushing merely for his own amusement. And while there’s plenty of button-pushing in “Sausage Party,” there’s also a welcome dose of radical (for a Hollywood comedy) thought in regards to organized religion and the deluded, if good-hearted souls who refuse to question its ethos. I can’t believe I’m questioning the ideological validity of a movie that concludes with a no-holds-barred food orgy and features a character named Sammy Bagel Jr. who is a walking collection of post Woody Allen nebbish clichés, but folks, it’s just been that kind of year. Like “South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut” and even Rogen’s recent, feminist-friendly “Neighbors 2,” “Sausage Party” is an unhinged midnight movie with a surprising amount on its mind. Some of that subtext gets lost in clouds of weed smoke and endless food-based sex puns, but it’s a small price to pay for comedy that feels sincerely and endearingly deranged. The result is filthy, shameful and, ultimately, liberating.
The action of “Sausage Party” takes place inside the Shopwell supermarket, where aisles of food items yearn to be whisked away by human shoppers. The shoppers are referred to by the food as Gods, and all yearn to be taken to the “Great Beyond” that lies outside of the market’s doors. Rogen, of course, voices a sausage named Frank, which makes sense when you consider his ruthlessly phallocentric sense of humor and the utilitarian nature of his comic persona. Understandably, Frank yearns to get in between the cracks of a comely hot dog bun named Brenda Bunson (Kristen Wiig). Wiig makes Bunson a memorable comic character even if, like many of the women who populate these very dude-focused movies, she’s ultimately little more than a consolation prize for Rogen’s randy tube of meat. One day, when a cranky jar of Honey Mustard, memorably voiced by Danny McBride, is returned the store, he begins making disturbing ruckus about a revelation that the audience will already be clued into: the Great Beyond isn’t’ real. While the foodstuffs at Shopwells may long to escape the banal prison of supermarket life, all that waits them beyond its doors is slaughter and chaos. No one wants to believe Honey Mustard’s mad ramblings, except for Frank. What ultimately transpires is a plot that’s occasionally a bit too madcap for its own good, one in which Frank, Brenda and a host of other comestibles — including a bickering Lavash (David Krumholtz) and Sammy Bagel Jr., who is inexplicably, if terrifically, voiced by Edward Norton — seek to uncover the mysteries of the Great Beyond. All this occurs while our heroes are being pursued by a steroidal, and literal, douche (Nick Kroll) with a Jersey Shore accent and a penchant for appalling instances of sexual violation.
Like the kid’s movies whose formulas it seeks to subvert, “Sausage Party” has fun creating a whirligig set of alternate worlds inside the strangely believable world of the supermarket itself. The Indian spice aisle is basically a re-creation of the South Asian Republic’s bustling city streets, while the Halal items are, understandably, separated from the items in the Kosher aisle. The metaphor here is fairly obvious: Shopwell’s is the World, and these pieces of food are all us, in all our horny, curious, impulsive and recklessly stupid non-glory. “Sausage Party” works like gangbusters as a gonzo cartoon epic engorged on weed fumes and a righteous sense of irreverence, but its political undercurrents are hard to ignore. It’s not the kind of thing worth parsing out in a review, since Rogen and his brain trust are ultimately better at dispensing with smart-dub yuks that tow what “Spinal Tap’s” Nigel Tufnel calls “that fine line between stupid and clever” than with any meaningful political commentary. And yet “Sausage Party” is that rare orchestra of idiocy that actually earns its stomach-turning finale. More on that in just a moment.
The voice acting is damn good; probably better than a movie like this requires. Rogen, of course, plays Frank as a tubular, white-gloved variation on his typical Jewish proto-stoner, and he’s so at ease with the material of the movie itself that he almost acts as our unofficial guide through this bizarre and sometimes frightening world. Wiig gets just as many laughs as Brenda Bunson, and she can turn even the most thankless line reading into an off-the-cuff comic jewel. The underdeveloped conception of Bunson’s character is the only one of the movie’s trulyglaring problems, one which is not remedied when she embarks a ridiculous lesbian romance with a taco voiced by Salma Hayek. McBride’s salty Southern brogue is a nice fit for the hysteria of Honey Mustard, although the doomed condiment meets his messy demise all too early in the film. Michael Cera voices one of Frank’s fellow sausages, Barry, as the kind of stammering, milquetoast nerd the actor practically trademarked in “Superbad” and “Arrested Development,” while comedian Nick Kroll essentially trots out his aggressively obnoxious Bobby Bottleservice character to voice the movie’s villainous douche — often to diminishing returns. I guess a movie like this does need a villain at the end of the day, but in a film that’s so consistently hilarious, Kroll’s gym-rat brauxisms aren’t nearly as gut-bustingly funny as the filmmakers seem to think they are. Kroll’s vaguely Italian douche is so violent and unbalanced that he occasionally reminded me of Bobby Cannavale’s coke-snorting music exec from HBO’s “Vinyl,” but I’m pretty sure Cannavale’s throat-clearing line readings made me laugh more.
What’s perhaps most impressive about “Sausage Party” is the movie’s unusual depth of visual imagination. Most of Rogen’s comedies, even his better ones, are point-and-shoot affairs: plant the camera in a stationary position, let the actors riff. Rinse, lather, repeat. The one notable exception that I can think of is “Pineapple Express,” that madcap 80’s-inspired pothead lark directed by indie renaissance man David Gordon Green. Like that film, “Sausage Party” is flush with inspired and acutely rendered lunacy that flirts openly with cartoon logic. Rogen and his frequent co-writer Evan Goldberg, plus directors Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon and the movie’s small army of animators, visually realize every nook and cranny of the Shopwell supermarket so that it comes to resemble a living, breathing metropolis, one that we very much come to believe in.
And then there’s that food orgy. Sweet fucking Jesus, you need to see this thing to believe it. The climax of “Sausage Party” contains one of the most openly revolting acts of transgressive big-screen sex since John Waters was mucking up small-town American cinemas, though the fact that the movie somehow manages to earn this kind of an ending is perhaps even more appalling. If you’ve ever wondered about the exact parameters that define sodomy, this movie should fill that in for you (see what I did there?), and maybe even give you a few examples you haven’t seen yet. Bring a barf bag, and be sure to leave your hang-ups at the door. Does the world need “Sausage Party” right now? To tell you the truth, reader, I’m not exactly sure. I know that the world needs to laugh, perhaps now in this troubled time more than ever. “Sausage Party” is aimed at the 13-year old moron in all of us, and Lord help me, this movie made me laugh like a hyena on nitrous oxide. May I never lose my inner 13-year old moron. B+