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Parents of America, be warned: You must protect your children. If you’ve raised them carefully, your wee ones have never before encountered a movie like this one. That’s right, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is a musical.
A terrific musical, and a hella good movie besides, as Cartman might say. As promised, South Park’s penchant for potty mouths, potty humor, and potty products expands to fill the space allotted it, so the censor-conscious TV series looks like Leave It to Beaver next to this spectacularly scatological, mind-numbingly dirty-talking, gleefully bloodthirsty feature film. No, your under-13er is not ready for it, even if protected by a phalanx of parents, guardians, ear plugs, and a slang dictionary.
The fun is in the fact that South Park’s pint-sized denizens Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman aren’t prepared for this fierce raising of the smut ante, either. After the 8-year-old heroes encounter verbal obscenities of an impressively baroque nature, the fight is on in the town of South Park—and soon, between countries—to protect our children against offensive speech even at the expense of human life. That the cartoon’s creators, infamous slacker success stories Trey Parker and Matt Stone, believe speech and life to be equally precious means your over-13ers may have no use for the film, either.
Stan sings the opening number, a romp through the freshly snowed-upon delights of his hometown, which proves to be much cruddier and rougher than the sugary lyrics claim. Many South Park inhabitants weigh in with their takes on the town, but all come together for a grand finale, which of course will be reprised at the film’s end. But in between, there are little-kid miseries to confront, which grow into international crises. The South Park boys sneak into Asses of Fire: The Terrance & Phillip Movie. This movie is the film’s version of the South Park movie, just as the heroes, Canadian fartmeisters Terrance and Phillip, are the TV show’s version of the South Park protagonists. But, like the film we’re watching, the film they watch doesn’t just push the envelope, it explodes it into a billion pieces. On the big screen, Terrance and Phillip abandon “Bite me” humor for a glorious tapestry of obscenities that makes even Stan, Kyle, et al. blanch. By the time T&P launch into their signature tune, “Shut Your Fucking Face, Uncle-Fucker,” the boys are riveted to their seats, open-mouthed, sedulously memorizing fine new phrases.
The boys take this colorful vocabulary back to school, where it literally sets off an international incident. Mr. Garrison and his anthropomorphized sidekick, Mr. Hat; the chicken-necked guidance counselor; and even Chef are appalled at the kids’ language—naturally, they’ve told all the other kids about the benefits of an afternoon at Asses of Fire, so the whole school is asking “Felch-Face” to “suck donkey dick.” Looking for somewhere to place the blame for their children’s foul-mouthed insouciance, the town leaders and parents overlook their own poor child management—this is the kind of school that offers guidance by posting hopeless hallway cheer like “Get High on Pottery”—and decide, in a rousing, militaristic number, to “Blame Canada!” Outrage and momentum build as the U.S. prepares to invade its northern neighbor, Terrance and Phillip are scheduled to be publicly executed at a variety spectacular sponsored by the USO, and the bewildered kids of South Park fight for a little rationality amid the madness.
So, OK, it’s about free speech, how nice. But South Park is about free speech the way Night of the Lepus is about the discovery of radium—it brings all of its keen-eyed sense of absurdity and love of summary chaos to argue for a precious right and makes a stronger, more dedicated case in the process. There’s no doubt that this is a Stone-Parker production: The hapless Kenny has his heart replaced with a baked potato, Conan O’Brien plummets to his death after an attack of conscience, the entire Baldwin family is bombed in a political act, Bill Gates is shot in the face, and Cartman is implanted with an anti-obscenity V-chip. Oh, and the local news station covers the international crisis in its usual attention-getting style—”Here with a special report is a midget in a bikini.”
More than a great North American war is at stake, however. Down in hell, to which Kenny has been temporarily relegated, Satan and his lover, Saddam Hussein, are having a spat. Saddam bullies the Prince of Darkness, relishing the moment when, according to Revelation, Terrance and Phillip’s blood will be spilled and the forces of evil will overtake the planet. Satan is losing ground in this codependent relationship, and he fears that Saddam will rule alone and continue to call him “Bitch” and treat him like a huge, monumentally powerful, albeit sexually enslaved washerwoman. The musical numbers are the products of people who thoroughly absorbed great movie musicals in their youth and can drape classic song-and-dance styles in ironic robes while not giving up an inch of genuine affection or songcraft. Satan’s big number, “Up There,” is a dead-on Disney spoof that ought to have the folks at Mouseworks reeling—the saccharine but hummable tune, the fancy digital graphics, the motif of yearning and innocence (Satan dreams of hang-gliding and flower-filled fields), all contemporary Disney down to its cloven hooves.
As social satire, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut is tremendously sharp and funny; as narrative, it’s imaginative in a truly generous way, despite the dirty words (which are also damn funny). In a desperate attempt to stop the madness led by Kyle’s braying yenta of a mother (yes, Cartman sings his “Kyle’s Mom Is a Bitch” tune), the kids found “La Resistance” and hire “the Mole,” a chain-smoking weapons expert schooled in the black arts of infiltration and sabotage—he is, of course, also 8 years old. The film climaxes at the USO show, hosted by Big Gay Al—another grown-up sellout, thrilled to be asked to sing “I’m Thuper, Thankth for Athking” in full Liberace raiment—during which La Resistance fights to rescue Terrance and Phillip, save the Earth from Satan, save poor Satan from Saddam, and earn Kenny a place in heaven. Parker and Stone want to take the audience of this film through the processes of outrage at cultural foulness—it really does pin one’s ears back at first—to outrage at the arrogant, dangerous premise that it is our job as a society to muffle foulness, or anything else. If the kids old enough to see this film are confused and disappointed that it’s not just a meaningless spew of foulness for yuks’ sake, Parker and Stone may have done their job too well.
If South Park is a real movie that looks like a cartoon, then Wild Wild West, Barry Sonnenfeld’s latest sci-fun collaboration with Will Smith, is a cartoon in real-movie guise. Sonnenfeld uses the premise of the original television show, with its retelling of the James Bond myth as an alternative-past science-fiction western, as a way of indulging his strengths—campily imaginative fantasy brought to life by the best digital and creature fabricators Hollywood has to offer. This Wild Wild West has none of the cheese and disarming spit-and-glue construction of the series. It aims a lovingly polished Gatling directly at your moneybone; when the whole disappointing ride judders to a stop, you’re left with the impression that the thing was really, really, really expensive.
How a good idea with all its cast-and-crew ducks in a row could emerge on screen as a lamentable, no-fun mess is a mystery, but we can eliminate the actors as suspects. Will Smith is wicked sexy and reliably beguiling as the nattily attired straight shooter Jim West; Kevin Kline makes a fine probable nutball who thinks he’s the only sane man in the room as Artemus Gordon, super-tinkerer and sidekick; Kenneth Branagh brings overlarge Royal Shakespeare Company chops to his role as the villainous half-man Dr. Arliss Loveless; and Salma Hayek has quit taking herself so seriously for the duration of her role as Rita Escobar, the spunky, sexy tagalong and corset displayer extraordinaire.
But the script is a palimpsest of missed chances and jerky rhythms—gags go on too long or are jarringly amputated, the dialogue can’t find a tone, and the idea of a suave black cowboy was treated with more taste when Mel Brooks first thought of it. Most audiences will sit through two hours of Will Smith doing anything, but using his powers of glibness to talk a redneck crowd out of lynching him, or engaging in excruciating dirty banter—”You can’t go ramming a man’s personal thing in some hole,” he tells a love-babe who’s just stuffed a rag in a hot-tub spyhole to prevent West’s attention from wandering—is not his style. Much of the dialogue seems to have been inserted at the last minute in overdubs, and the editing fiddled with until the 11th hour; there’s probably a sharp, exciting, special-effects adventure lurking somewhere amid all the footage, but this isn’t it.
Sonnenfeld claims to adore working with Smith—which is fine, considering that the director’s cartoonish style and Smith’s sex-god-for-the-whole-family persona mesh well. But in a larger context, it’s becoming distressing to watch how Sonnenfeld uses Smith. He is cast, fittingly, as the multigifted loose cannon, a man of both talk and action, with tremendous personal panache and impressive talents. But I’m getting tired of watching Smith’s characters promptly be co-opted by his government. The implicit racism in this scenario is disturbing—the black man’s versatile virility being bought up by the state so that it won’t be deployed against it. At best, Sonnenfeld’s attraction to this premise is the product of his own barren imagination; at worst, it’s a metaphor for Smith’s Hollywood career. This flimsy, glitzy, fake-looking mess of a would-be blockbuster probably didn’t look like a mistake to Smith when he signed on, but if this is where working for the Man gets you, it might be time to put the guns down and reassess. CP