Through the Motions
by Chris Wisniewski

The Simpsons Movie
Dir. David Silverman, U.S., 20th Century Fox

If someone had asked me ten years ago to name the greatest television series in the history of the medium, I would have chosen The Simpsons without hesitation. While this was before I discovered Homicide: Life on the Street, before Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Sopranos, it's still hard to imagine a series comparing to The Simpsons in the sharpness of its humor, the pointedness of its satire, and the underlying sweetness at its core. Back then, The Simpsons was more than just a television series, it was a time capsule packaged as entertainment: it showed us to ourselves in ways that could make us cry with laughter (over and over and over again); it exposed the foibles, contradictions, and hypocrisies of late 20th-century America while suggesting, with the utmost sincerity, that there was still something good, tender, and decent in us. The first decade of The Simpsons marked an apotheosis of television as American popular culture—the series turned a crass, glib medium against itself and, in the process, ascended to the status of great popular art.

Though I'm reluctant to join the chorus of naysayers who now routinely criticize the show, I have come to believe that The Simpsons has increasingly diminished more in practice than in theory. The crassness of its humor, both a strength and a weakness, has dovetailed with the unfortunate (and much-criticized) tendency in later seasons to exploit Homer's idiocy to cheap comic effect; its scattershot storytelling often devolves into inanity—again a particular problem in recent seasons; and even from the beginning, The Simpsons has been compromised by the commercialism and corporate interests it often sends up with sly self-consciousness—it is a vehicle to sell things (toys, video games, lunch boxes, tee shirts, dolls, music...the list goes on and on), a commodity and a brand. Eighteen seasons after it first debuted, The Simpsons is still very funny, but it long ago stopped being artistically vital. It's now flagging and tired, its reputation dented by its too-long existence and the multi-billion dollar corporations that keep it on life support.

To take a broad view of it, the new Simpsons Movie is a product—and a successful bid at brand reinvigoration. The film’s $70 million opening weekend haul offers proof enough that The Simpsons is viable again, at least as a commercial enterprise, and it's all thanks to a group of filmmakers who have delivered a first-class entertainment. Improbably, the team behind The Simpsons Movie have crafted a seriously funny film that manages to be oddly touching and satisfying. Director David Silverman moves the picture along at a brisk pace, while the screenwriting team led by series creator Matt Groening (and featuring plenty of names that should be familiar to regular Simpsons watchers) keep the laughs coming consistently throughout. Sure, one could quibble that the film skews a little too far towards the dumb Homer/crass humor side of the equation, but so much of that stuff—take Homer's (literal?) infatuation with a pig—works too well to make it worth the complaint. Similarly, the central plotline is a bit tenuous (Homer causes something of a national environmental incident that results in the federal government sealing Springfield off from the world with a large glass dome), but the writers get around any problems their charmingly preposterous setup might cause by maintaining their focus on the family and their central emotional conflicts. Put simply: as a major summer film released by a Hollywood studio, The Simpsons Movie works.

So why that empty, hollow feeling? Why don't I feel excited about The Simpsons again? Successful brand reinvigoration, you see, has little to do with artistic reinvigoration. The Simpsons Movie manages plenty of humor without the iconoclastic spirit of critique that characterizes the series at its best; it's toothless and broad. And while I'm inclined to praise the filmmakers for resisting the temptation to try too hard, one also gets the impression that they haven't pushed themselves. Take their "President Schwarzenegger"—he's "a leader, not a reader"—an easy target and an effortless caricature with no immediate connection to our political present. Where's the bold iconoclasm responsible for the bleak, hilarious depiction of a presidential election gone terribly awry back in the 1996 “Treehouse of Terror” episode? If Silverman, Groening, et al had just changed the accent and the name, they could have kept the Schwarzenegger stuff line for line and made a scathing political statement. Instead, they've decided to poke cheap fun at a political fantasy.

This probably amounts to the critic criticizing the filmmakers for not making the movie the critic wanted them to make. Guilty as charged. But if this movie isn't meant to say anything of substance or to capture the essence of The Simpsons at its best, why was it made? At the beginning of the film, Homer interrupts the “Itchy and Scratchy” movie-within-a-movie to wonder aloud why he paid money to see something he could have watched for free at home. It's one of those perfect Simpsons jokes, that knowing wink at an audience of people who know they've been duped into buying into the brand. But in calling us out, the joke elides a fundamental contradiction: the people behind The Simpsons Movie want us to laugh at ourselves for feeding the brand without acknowledging their own complicity in reducing The Simpsons to a product. Why spend the time and creative energy on making a film when there's still a television show to run? The Simpsons Movie makes no effort to justify itself artistically—it takes no risks, aesthetically or politically; it makes no statement; it does almost nothing, save a nice use of widescreen, to exploit the power or potential of the cinema as an art form, or to comment upon or transcend the show's televisuality. So why does The Simpsons Movie exist? The answer is so plain even Homer Simpson sees it: Because if you make a movie of a television show, people will pay $11 a pop to see something they would otherwise just watch for free at home. Who cares about art? Brand Simpsons is alive and well.