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Beavis and Butt-head, MTV’s answer to Siskel and Ebert, are famous for sitting on the sofa offering their moronic verdicts on moronic music videos. The central joke of Beavis and Butt-head Do America, the duo’s anti-Kerouackian on-the-road movie, is that when the two clueless teenage toons are forced to leave their home and travel cross-country, they barely notice their surroundings. Beavis and Butt-head can’t hear America singing unless it’s on TV.
In fact, the two cretinous kids don’t even comprehend music as something that occurs outside of videos. Their odyssey begins when someone steals their TV, and when their quest to get it back leads them to Las Vegas they don’t even pack a Walkman. No wonder the film’s two highlights are both homages to the small screen: The opening credits evoke ’70s cop shows and blaxploitation flicks to the beat of a Shaft-style rearrangement of the duo’s theme song, while a desert hallucination sequence turns into an animated White Zombie video that mates Hieronymus Bosch with Big Daddy Roth.
Beavis and Butt-head creator Mike Judge—the movie’s director and, with Joe Stillman, its co-writer—doesn’t have a very complicated satirical agenda. His cartoons are designed for people who are smart enough to see that Beavis and Butt-head are idiots, but dumb enough to enjoy their humor anyway. The duo’s idea of a good joke is almost always sexual or excretory, and Beavis and Butt-head Do America features a defecating donkey, an explosive fart, and the twosome’s delight at a bank of urinals with sensor-controlled flushing action. As always, the pair eagerly seeks any possible double entendre. Indeed, their whole adventure is predicated on a misunderstanding of a trendily ambiguous word; offered $10,000 to “do” a thug’s wife, the horny young virgins assume they’ve agreed to screw the woman, not to kill her.
This setup leads the duo on a tour of the American West, with stops at Hoover Dam, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone Park, the Petrified Forest, and a small adobe church, where the boys, at first mistaking the confessionals for porta-potties, excitedly listen to the parishioners’ sins. Since Beavis is unknowingly carrying a stolen experimental biological weapon, they’re pursued by ATF agents, whose chief shows an unnatural enthusiasm for “full cavity searches.” After spending this much time on federal land, it’s only natural that the film ends in Washington, where Beavis, hopped up on No-Drowz, wanders the White House gibbering that he’s “Cornholio.”
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Though the movie offers a few glimpses of the boys’ school—including an instant-classic politically correct ballad from their painfully sensitive teacher—there’s no chance that Beavis and Butt-head will be assigned an essay about what they learned while doing America. That’s just as well, since clearly neither the kids nor their creator has any thoughts on the subject. Perhaps because these commentators have attention spans befitting their origin in a two-minute cartoon, putting them on the road proves futile. Embodying rather than analyzing the country’s dimness, Judge’s boys are their own commentary on an intellectually downsized America. Beavis and Butt-head Do America certainly doesn’t suggest that they should get out more.
Beavis and Butt-head are stupid, but not as stupid as My Fellow Americans, which also sends a pair of bickering bad boys on an American journey. In this case, the boys are ex-Presidents Russell Kramer (Jack Lemmon) and Matt Douglas (James Garner), longtime political enemies brought together in opposition to a fiendish plot hatched somewhere in the White House. In the process, they develop the requisite grudging respect for each other, as well as a new understanding of the real America—as it’s envisioned by Hollywood hacks Peter Segal, who directed, and E. Jack Kaplan, Richard Chapman, and Peter Tolan, who scripted.
The movie carefully name-drops all the living ex-presidents, so you know that Kramer and Douglas are not supposed to be any of them. Still, the prissy, prestige-peddling Republican Kramer is sort of George Bush, while the earthy, philandering Democrat Douglas is a little bit JFK. As bumbling Vice President Ted Matthews, John Heard is mostly Dan Quayle, but Dan Aykroyd’s President William Haney is so marginal a character that he might as well be William Henry Harrison. Essentially a buddy/chase picture, the film concentrates on Kramer and Douglas, providing little screen time for such supporting actors as Lauren Bacall and Wilford Brimley. Everything else, from the vague establishing shots of D.C. to the haphazard use of such songs as “Macarena” and “Funkytown,” seems little more than random.
Unlike Judge, Segal isn’t so cynical as to have his heroes hounded by psychopathic ATF agents; instead, he makes them run from sociopathic NSA assassins. After a trek through Middle America—North Carolina posing as West Virginia and Ohio—My Fellow Americans follows Beavis and Butt-head Do America to the White House. While the teenage ‘toons don’t really know what they’re doing there, Kramer and Douglas are earnest, swashbuckling, and prepared to abandon their lives of political compromise to save the republic. At such times as these, the movie plays like All the President’s Men with Woodward and Bernstein as bored ex-presidents rather than hungry young reporters.
The filmmakers are clearly unafraid of formula, but they do have a problem with commitment: My Fellow Americans can shift from conspiracy thriller to grumpy-old-men slapstick comedy in a matter of seconds, just as Segal is entirely willing to let Lemmon be Felix Unger and Garner be Jim Rockford. Indeed, the only consistent aspect of the film is its sententious liberalism. The three credited screenwriters are all TV veterans, and we’re definitely in the land of sitcom verities when the aloof ex-presidents encounter regular-guy characters who teach them about the economic deprivations of the working class, the noble aspirations of illegal immigrants, and the dignity of gay men and lesbians. For those citizens who have managed thus far to avoid becoming cynical about presidential politics, My Fellow Americans is a good place to start.