The "Let's kill Kim Jong-un" move The Interview has drawn inevitable, and not always favorable, comparisons to another movie that skewers North Korea, Team America: World Police. But why do people hold up the South Park creators' often crudely funny film as a bar The Interview fails to reach?
In yesterday's discussion of The Interview, commenter AerostarMonk asked why Team America, which was directed by Trey Parker and co-written by Parker, Matt Stone, and Pam Brady, is discussed as a superior form of satire. After all, it shares certain plot elements with The Interview and, like The Interview, it employs "juvenile" and often "problematic" humor:
Here's something I still cannot piece together, why is Team America: World Police held up as an exemplary piece of satire? Whether it's a funnier or not is all a matter of taste, or lack thereof. But people were calling it the superior jab at the same situation without having seen a single frame of The Interview and I just don't get it.
It's very crude, juvenile and is mired in tons of problematic bits. You could spend hours trying to justify their racist bits alone, and that's before getting to any other part of the film. But that's not the problem I have with the film. Well at least not the central one.
My biggest problem with the film is that its message is strictly middle of the road. It doesn't decide on anything. At best it's "Everyone's got a point" at worst it's "Everyone's equally right". The fact that I haven't met someone who can tell me what the truly incisive and subversive point of this movie sort of points towards a massive satirical failure. Everyone's absolved of what they did by the end, even Kim Jong-Il who's only awful not because he's a lonely human but actually an alien cockroach.
It seems the only way the movie wins is in how well-constructed it is. And I could be wrong. Forgive me if I'm wrong and misinterpreted the message of the film. It could be this brilliant thing that I've simply missed. But in my view, it's no Bigger Longer and Uncut which not only had a stronger point but seemed downright prescient in its depiction of making wars out of nothing.
This framing of Parker and Stone as master satirists baffles me because they don't seem more cutting or sharper, just meaner to everyone in general. And that's not the mark of great satire to me. Not that they can't hit it out of the park every once in awhile.
I apologize for derailing this, but it does relate to the film. I keep wondering if the movie would be better received if not connected to two folks that the world is as predisposed to disliking as James Franco and Seth Rogen.
Mortal Dictata argues that what makes Team America different from The Interview is that the former movie isn't attacking North Korea so much as it's mocking American politics and culture:
The difference is that Team America has absolutely nothing to do with attacking Kim Jong Il. It's entire message was about how the US political and celebrity culture think themselves as greater than everything else when in reality they don't really have much idea of the damage they're doing but at the same time also does agree that there needs to be someone to balance out the insanity of the world.
This is just another dumb Franco/Rogen film where they try to go 'Kim Jong Un is very bad' which is a very naive assessment of the situation and uses it to make a bunch of boring jokes.
Also the fact remains Team America came along first at a time when it was very current to talk about US foreign policy about Terror (the war in Iraq was still in its infancy) and how divisive the debate was while this has been made at a time when it's very easy to go 'those wars were bad'.
Several commenters said that they enjoy Team America as satire but could do without some of its more offensive jokes. On the other hand, 1076 wrote a very lengthy response (excerpted below), arguing that the offensive humor is actually part of Parker and Stone's core message:
Team America is incredible in how deftly it recontextualizes blockbuster action flicks likeThe Rock or Bad Boys. Inside each scene, you may have goofy characters or silly voices, but the structure of the film is, pace-for-pace, a blockbuster film. The scene structure, the staging, the set pieces - it's all a take on Michael Bay and his ilk. Because that is done so cleverly, you hardly even notice it, which gives Team America a time-tested foundation to build upon. Every scene has been rigorously tested with audience after audience, summer after summer.
Team America also "closes the loop" in that it uses such absurd or vulgar premises in such a straightforward manner, that there is no time for commentary on how silly the thing has become until, at one point, you're trying to tell someone about a scene and it hits you full force.
Take the scene where Gary is infiltrating the terrorists - He's on about "I put a jihad on them, and I'll put a jihad on you too!". It's wildly racist and demeaning to that culture, but those are ancillary to the whole build up. If you want to comment on how ridiculously racist it is, you can be met with "Well, he's just got pubes on his face to make him a 'terrorist', THAT's racist!". To which you may have to let them go with "Well, it's a puppet - you have to suspend your disbelief and assume that he looks kind of real, in universe."
So, okay, it's puppets, but why is Gary even there? Because he's an Actor. They drummed it up as if it was a brand new concept to use an actor to do this infiltration task (Like using miners to drill into an asteroid, or a scientists to dispose of chemical weapons), when, not only is that ham-fistedly basic, but it's a great leap to assume that an actor could seamlessly acquire the skills to be a spy so quickly. So now we're not only suspending disbelief for puppets, but for the core narrative of Gary joining the team. All so we can comment on how racist his speech was? At that point, you're not seeing the forest for the trees.
And, of course, the fact that it's hard to see until you try to lay it all out in a straight line just reinforces the masterful story building done by the duo.
The whole movie has this sideways humor to it, almost begging you to think critically about it. It's as if Matt and Trey don't care at all, when every scene apathetically introduces more casual racism or ignorance ("Derka derka, Muhammad jihad", "Everyone has AIDS!", "So Ronery"), but the more you look at it, the more you realize just how much care it takes to SEEM that culturally insensitive. It's a lead; A trap. They want you to call the movie racist for X, so they can show you your own hypocrisy for not seeing, or being concerned with, Y. Which is exactly the point of the movie! Stop worrying so much about whatever YOUR hot-button issue is, and try to see how fucked up the whole of the issues are.
By the way, this kicked off a long and very interesting discourse between AerostarMonk and 1076, where they discuss this reading of Parker and Stone's work and whether it's accurate — a discussion that is well worth reading.
AerostarMonk, at the ends, does wonder whether Team America really will stand the test of time:
This might be one of those things that just requires time. Almost all well-revered literate works only got that way with time. At this point nobody actually seems to revere Team America. They just think it's better at whatever it's doing than the Interview. But that's a low bar if you ask anyone what they think of the Interview. So maybe this a conversation best left for another decade down the line.
I will concede that it has all the elements for great satire, but I don't think it's working yet. Perhaps like a good bottle of wine it just needs to age into its best instead of being consumed as if it's already at that point right now.
But if the actual desired effect was to get people to laugh now and then get them to think waaaaay later, then I've underestimated Stone/Parker much to my own detriment and even my own enjoyment. Because that sort of long game deserves more acclaim than I could ever possibly give it myself.
And our own Annalee Newitz, who wrote the original post, notes that she thought about Team America while watching The Interview, and that comparing the two exposed a key problem with The Interview:
I actually kept wondering about that throughout this movie, which obviously wanted to be an updated version of TEAM AMERICA. As you noted, TEAM is actually a well-constructed film. It's got a lot of the same jokes, but they all work. Plus, TEAM feels much more self-consciously about American hypocrisy. There is no form of jingoism or patriotism that isn't harshly satirized. THE INTERVIEW, on the other hand, wants to have it both ways. The movie makes fun of North Korean patriotism, but seems to think American patriotism is pretty cool in some ways. So, as I said, it feels less like a movie about American hypocrisy and more an embodiment of that hypocrisy.