Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the team behind “South Park,” take such pleasure in being naughty that it makes their work more silly than smutty. It’s all just too cheerful to be shocking, even with a character made out of human excrement (the “South Park” television show), a singing sexual organ (the “South Park” movie), or naked marionettes in a variety of sexual acts and positions (“Team America: World Police”). In their best work, the outrageousness is in aid of a statement, a sharp attack, so that the four-letter words and cheerful bad taste transcend their schoolyard shock value to work as satire.
But when there is no special point of view and they just decide to bash everyone on all sides, it runs out of steam quickly. This latest venture would have made a hilarious 15-minute short film, but at feature length it gets repetitive and tiresome.
Inspired by the British children’s television show of the 1960’s, “Thunderbirds,” Parker and Stone have created a fabulously intricate puppet world, with replicas of iconic monuments from Mount Rushmore and the Sphinx to the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal. The puppets themselves are sensationally funny. The heroes are all square jaws and twinkling eyes and possibly a millimeter less wooden than the hunky heroes who inspired them. (Though I can’t imagine how Stone and Parker missed one obvious convention of the genre, the minority member of the team to lend a little coolness to the whitebread heroes.)
Team America is a sort of world-class SWAT team, five all-American, good-looking heroes who are masters of everything from kick-boxing to rocket science. They toss off brave wisecracks while gunning down evil-doers, with time for a slow-motion hair-toss when it’s over. And they have a cool clubhouse inside Mount Rushmore, equipped with every kind of transportation and weapon system and a swinging cocktail lounge.
But one of the team is killed, just as he is proposing to another team member, Lisa. To replace him, the team’s major domo/coach, Spottswoode (Daran Norris, sounding like Peter Graves), recruits…an actor!
Yes, Gary, star of the hit Broadway musical, “Lease” (skewering “Rent” with a showstopping final number, “Everyone has AIDS!”), is brought on board because the most important skill for fighting terrorism is acting ability.
Spottswoode tells Gary (like many of the characters, voiced by Parker), “as an actor with a double major in theater and world languages, you’re the perfect weapon!” At first Gary says no, but there is something about saving the world, or maybe just something about wanting to see Lisa again that makes him change his mind.
So, Gary gets a makeover and infiltrates the terrorists. But things go wrong, and the country loses faith in Team America. Meanwhile, Kim Jong Il is plotting total world domination and a bunch of Hollywood celebrities think they have the solution for world peace.
When the movie is good — its dead-on production design and the never-flagging hilarity of the marionettes doing just about anything — people who want to fight terrorists, people who don’t want to fight terrorists, people who are terrorists, and people who just have really, really inflated senses of their importance in the world — it is very funny. A song comparing how much Gary misses Lisa to how bad Pearl Harbor was, a musical salute to the montage, and Kim Jong Il’s plaintive lament about how lonely he is are all sharply funny. Stone and Parker go after everyone here — people who want to fight terrorists, people who don’t want to fight terrorists, people who are terrorists, and people who just have really, really inflated senses of their importance in the world, so the satire is therefore too scattershot to sustain the film.
Parents should know that this movie is not for children or even for many adults. It is intentionally offensive and extremely vulgar and raunchy, with exceptionally strong language and graphic sexual references and situations. Naked marionettes engage in a Kama Sutra of sexual acts and positions. The movie is oddly homophobic. The organization based on the Screen Actors Guild is called the Film Actors Guild so it can have the initials F.A.G. A male character forces another male character into a sexual encounter not because they are gay but as an expression of power. Later, the experience is made public to humiliate the one who had to submit. There is a lot of graphic puppet violence, with characters getting shot, blown up, decapitated, sliced in half, mauled, and burned. Characters drink and smoke. And there is an extended gross-out barfing sequence.
Families who see this movie should talk about why celebrities speak out on politics and how effective they are. They should also talk about what makes the marionettes so funny. Would the movie work as well if it was animated or live-action?
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Airplane and Austin Powers and its sequels. They may also like to see save-the-world movies like Three Days of the Condor and Foul Play.