Arts & Entertainment » Film

Yellow fever

Yeah, it mattered, but is it still funny?

I could easily spend these two columns trying to ruin The Simpsons Movie for you. In fact, I’m inclined to do exactly that. Not because I think you shouldn’t see the movie, but because I enjoyed it so damn much that I want to tell each joke over and over.

You might think this is because I’m a fanboy. And you’d be right in surmising that I have a special relationship with the yellow-skinned family of five from Springfield. As an adolescent, I was instructed not to watch “The Simpsons,” which was considered subversively irreverent in its day, though it’s sort of quaint compared to younger-brother contemporaries like “South Park.” The order to abstain from viewing was the first parental mandate that I baldly refused to obey. Probably, as I was then just entering my teens, the timing was right. Regardless, I owe a good portion of my crass sense of humor to series creator Matt Groening and his cheeky fellow travelers; many of my generation could say the same.

Still, I didn’t go into The Simpsons Movie convinced I would enjoy it. Somewhere around the 10th season of the television show, I basically stopped watching. I didn’t do so out of active distaste, but passive ennui. It seemed episodes were increasingly structured around flashy special guests and surrealistic gags—inward reflective subtlety crowded out by gaudy showmanship. I felt like Springfield had gone Hollywood on me.

Maybe it did. I’m not about to spend a weekend digging through the seasons in which I have favored “South Park” over “The Simpsons” to confirm or deny my feelings about the television series. I may, however, revisit those intervening years over the coming months—and it will be because of the film.

The Simpsons Movie is a lesson in comedic technique. Jokes are squeezed in at every opportunity—as often as a half-dozen in 60 seconds—which is an abdominally excruciating pace. Even better, the best jokes center on the family’s internal dynamic and their interplay with the community rather than bizarre non sequiturs. (Yeah, “Family Guy,” I’m looking at you.) Guest appearances by the rock band Green Day and actor Tom Hanks, as well as Harry Shearer’s parody of Arnold Schwarzenegger, don’t begin to measure up to the core characters’ contributions. (To be fair, though, Tom Hanks’ pitch for a New Grand Canyon—because the old one has gotten so boring—far outshines Green Day.)

There is a plot among all the humor, of course. It plays out along lines that will be familiar to anyone who has watched the television series, but it should also be accessible to the couple of folks who have yet to see an episode. And it will seem fresh to either demographic.

The movie picks up its main story when Homer acts the part of a thick-skulled lout, causing an environmental catastrophe in his haste to make it to a donut giveaway generated by a failed health inspection. Gone-mad-with-power Environmental Protection Agency administrator Russ Cargill (“Have you ever tried going mad without power?” he asks. “It’s boring. No one listens to you.”) seals off Springfield with an inescapable dome. The resulting lynch mob drives the Simpson family to an improbable escape, followed by a visually stunning sequence in which the family’s house is destroyed by a sinkhole—one of several inspired uses of advanced animation techniques Groening honed with his “Futurama” series. Happily transplanted to Alaska, the Simpsons end their exile when they learn Springfield is otherwise doomed to become the aforementioned New Grand Canyon.

Along the way, the story supports a barrage of sight gags, wordplay, social satire and physical comedy—so much that it left me exhausted. The writers, who might sometimes blow off a week or two of the series, must have pored over this screenplay with welcome obsessiveness. It’s 90 solid minutes of the best kind of comedy around, the finely honed work of people who know how to be funny.

Some viewers will expect an epic from The Simpsons Movie. The television show is such a cultural icon that it’s easy to expect something more profound than comedy. After all, Simpsons humor often alludes to our unanimated world, using hyperbole to expose the hypocrisy and humanity of how we live. And the movie does this too.

But “The Simpsons” got to be as popular as it is for making us bust our guts, and the success or failure of the movie was going to rest with the same delivery of laughs. I laughed a lot. Maybe I got a little wiser (or, more likely, wise-ass-er), but mostly I just marveled that after nearly two decades, this dysfunctional family of five can still make me laugh myself yellow.


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