GREAT FILMS: Sausage Party (2016)

Sausage Party (USA, 2016)
Directed by Greg Tiernan & Conrad Vernon
Starring Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Jonah Hill, Bill Hader

There is value to be found in taking a comedy seriously. I do not mean that the best comedy is one that will not produce laughter, but rather that a great comedy will often be able to make you think or deeply emote, feeding your head and your heart even as it makes your sides ache. Not every comedy has to be as substantial as Stanley Kubrick's outings in the genre, but a comedy which does the hard work is always a welcome addition - particularly during awards season, in which comedies are so often overlooked in favour of more overtly serious but often inferior films.
By these standards, or indeed any standards, Sausage Party is a great comedy. Like National Lampoon's Animal House before it, it takes a subject matter which has potentially interesting political or philosophical connotations, and proceeds to explore it in some of the most delightfully tasteless ways imaginable for a contemporary audience - and all the while you find your sides splitting like one of its bananas. If nothing else, it's further evidence that lowbrow productions can often be as successful as ultra-highbrow outings in making us both think and laugh.
Sausage Party is a high-concept film, insofar as it is built around one central idea, but it is not entirely high-concept in its execution. Seth Rogen worked for eight years to make the film, being turned down by numerous studios and first teasing the project in 2010, three years before it was green-lit. Not only that, but this film cost $19m, much lower than the kind of budget which mainstream animation efforts often enjoy. This is wearing the skin of a mainstream film, but underneath it is a labour of love. Even if we don't like the finished product, the fact that a film this spirited and personal was made at all under the present system is something which should be applauded.
The film has an interesting central conceit - namely what it would be like if our food had feelings, and how it would react to being eaten. The idea sounds simple - it's the sort of thing that a child could imagine, given the right stimulation - but it is also one of surprising depth. The film's philosophical underpinning is animism, the idea of animals, plants and even inanimate objects having souls - a belief which, some anthropologists claim, is one of the oldest in human civilisation and the underpinning of many early religions. As we shall see, Sausage Party is interested in religion quite a bit - albeit not from the most academic of perspectives.
Equally, we can view Sausage Party's conceit as a parody of the Disney-PIXAR approach to character animation. John Lasseter once said that he tried to characterise inanimate or disposable objects in terms of their relationship to their purpose; in his example, a bottle of water would be very happy when full, would get mad at people the more they drank from it, and would cease to feel meaning toward its life once it was empty. This film shares Lasseter's idea of purpose being something external (something given to creatures, rather than something that they invent for themselves), but those giving said purpose are far less benevolent.
The film has an interest in the way that religions operate, both in terms of their relationship to other religions and the relationship between gods and their followers. Obviously you're not going to find the deepest examination of religion or theology in here - any film which literally climaxes in a mass orgy hasn't got the deepest of convictions. But it is interesting to find a mainstream comedy (and a stoner comedy at that) wanting to tackle this issue, instead of merely spouting platitudes about it through a haze of illegal chemicals.
Ultimately, Sausage Party lines up with the increasingly secular mainstream on this matter, opining (in my view mistakenly) that religion is a misinterpretation of the natural world caused by a lack of knowledge and an unwillingness to question what has traditionally been regarded as true. The belief system it depicts is rooted in the non-moral religion of many pagan cultures, including elements of Ancient Greece, where the gods were capricious, inconsistent, limited in their powers and regularly indifferent to the plight of mortals. To paraphrase C. S. Lewis in The Problem of Pain, this religion has not yet progressed to the point where the source of numinous awe (the sense of dread and reverence we feel towards supernatural beings) has been identified as the giver of the moral law, which we feel compelled to behave and yet fail to uphold.
Given the film's set-up and the philosophical problems which animism poses (e.g. how can we justify eating anything if everything on Earth has a soul?), it is hard to see how Rogen and the directors could have arrived at any other conclusion. From a purely intellectual standpoint it's disappointing that they didn't go further, confining themselves to jokes about the results of entrenched religion in culture (the Jewish bagel fighting with the Arab lavash) rather than exploring whether the supernatural could genuinely exist in any form. But if watching this film starts thos conversation for a few more people, rather than simply reaffirming their views, then that should be recognised in some way, however small.
Even if you're not interested in Sausage Party's views on religion, there is still a lot to enjoy in the film. The film wears its bad taste like a badge of honour from the outset - if the overtly vaginal design of Kristen Wiig's hot dog bun makes you feel uncomfortable, then there is really no point sticking around for the jokes about Nazi food seeking to "kill the juice", or the parody of war films with spaghetti guts and jam standing in for blood. Some of the character decisions are more subtle than others - the villain being literally a giant douche isn't the biggest creative stretch - but the designs are distinctive, the voice cast are consistently funny and the animation is appealing despite having a deliberately plastic quality.
The one flaw with Sausage Party is ultimately that it doesn't quite go far enough, either in its subject matter or its jokes. That's not to say you won't find at least one moment which generates an awkward silence rather than a loud chuckle, but it's ultimately a little too conventional in its protagonists having worked so hard to challenge a lot of the other conventions in the genre.
Even when it comes to its darkness and political incorrectness, the film feels the need to keep the characters endearing and appealing, playing to the Disney-PIXAR dynamic of good triumphing over evil even as it subverts much of their styles. It's not up there with the likes of Heathers, Dr. Strangelove or the best of the Ealing comedies, which had the confidence to turn acidic observations about the world onto its main players, making us perversely sympathise with really horrible people. Sausage Party is trying to have its cake and eat it, and its ending is a double cop-out: not only has that kind of fourth wall joke been done to death, but it teases about there being a supernatural side after hammering about the lack of one for the running time.
Sausage Party is a hilarious comedy which asks some surprisingly intelligent questions. Even if its answers and execution don't always fire, it pulls off the rare gambit of appealing to a mainstream audience without losing any of its spiky, creative nature, and above all it's consistently funny from its opening to closing gags. If nothing else, it's proof that there is more to Seth Rogen and his counterparts than often meets the eye.

NEXT REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)


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