It’s Thursday and I end switching my schedule around to catch up with my film homie to go to the AMC theaters in Emeryville. This wasn’t my first choice, but none of our favorite artsy fartsy theaters played so late into a weeknight. So, the conglomerate of consumerism and teenage hangouts known as Bay Street had to suffice. We met up around 7pm, and luckily the theater was fairly empty.
Fast forward 20 minutes of trailers and 90 minutes of movie later, and we left the theater, leaving it full of shocked laughs, ‘wows’ and ‘what the fucks.’ A chilly breeze rushed through AMC as we walked out, its brisk embrace snapping us out of the strange reverie. It helped us refocus: how was the movie, exactly? For her, it just “wasn’t good…at all.” I just felt violated, mostly.
That’s how I ended up watching Sausage Party.
The film follows a sentient assortment of food and home products living in a generic supermarket. Every morning they perform an uproarious musical selection that details their beliefs. Namely: they love living in the supermarket, worship the gods (see: humans), and believe that only good things happen once they’re taken to “The Great Beyond” (see: beyond the store’s doors.)
Main characters include Frank (Seth Rogen) and Brenda (Kristen Wiig), a hot dog and bun, who are just aching to get it in. Their romance is cut short, however, when a mishap involving a douche and a can of honey mustard throws them “outside the package,” where they must fend for themselves or be thrown away. Where Frank diverges to learn the truth behind “The Great Beyond,” Brenda chooses to try to stay. The resulting sojourn involves plenty of hijinks, shock humor, and some really, really weird scenes of food having sex.
And that’s just the reader’s digest version.
I’d like to back up here and say first that I was lowkey excited to see this film. Mostly because the American film market is often still stuck in the early post-Code Hollywood days of limiting “adult” content to live-action. If anything about anything has taught us, well, anything, it’s that all visual media can be “adult,” you just have to fucking adapt it to the chosen platform. Just ask the folks behind damn near any anime, or even most recently, Anomalisa. Maybe Hollywood is still reeling from the abject failure of Final Fantasy: Spirits Within. Who really knows?
Secondly, you should know that I loathe James Franco with the power of a thousand suns. I loathe his seemingly unlimited access to….everything, regardless of the success of whatever he does. He’s by no means your average mediocre white guy. I *do* think the man can act. But then he often seems to find the most enjoyment in films that anyone with an ounce of non-white-dudeness would never be able to get funding for. Because of this, Franco plays in this infuriating space where I never know what to do with him except be incredibly itchy about his existence.
By extension, I’m wary of the birds of his feather (Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson and the rest). [Editor’s Note: Vice Principals with Danny McBride is really hard to watch but really on-point satire of white privilege and white supremacy.] In a lot of their projects, as much as their comedy can cause laughs, they’re often not earned. You laugh because of a weird knee-jerk reaction of your brain trying to apply logic to the shocks being thrown at you. These shocks are built from a school of low-hanging fruit form of comedy that thrives within overwrought conventions. Nearly all of them live within the intersection of narrow gender roles, heteronormative sexuality, various forms of panic, tired stereotypes (racial and otherwise), and supposed existential pondering through the lenses of men. In Rogen’s case in particular, this is true of This is The End, Pineapple Express, Superbad, 50/50, & The Night Before, to name a few.
I’m bringing these things up because I want to contextualize how I hoped that Sausage Party would play in more interesting pastures, a la 50/50 and to some extent, The Night Before. In both films, Rogen & associated cast at least try to explore this wheelhouse of subjects in ways that are endearing and interesting. In 50/50, we encountered a dramatic stretch wherein the narrative could go for low-hanging fruit, but it was constantly rooted in the dynamism (or lack thereof) of male emotions & relationships in the face of mortality. In The Night Before, we’re brought back into a much more whimsical situation, but the importance of friendship and family is equally explored (albeit loosely).
Sausage Party, at its core, seems to want to tackle theism, humanism (foodism?), and societal difference. In a basic play for Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, Frank must convince his people that the world outside is nothing like they thought. In a frightening late-act discovery, he learns that “The Great Beyond” is nothing but a lie: the gods actually murder (see: eat) him and his ilk, and thus everything everyone knows is a lie.
As a result of this discovery, and the journey leading up to its ultimate reveal, the basic tension between Frank’s search for “The Truth” and his community’s need to cling to what they know becomes a central tenet of the film. From arguing with Brenda to the entire food market, Frank cannot understand how they could possibly believe something that they have no evidence of. The peak of this occurs when, in an ode to a classic Twilight Zone episode, Frank broadcasts a page from a cookbook depicting food murders and his people just plain don’t believe him.
This of course is a basic argument of atheism and agnosticism: one cannot believe in something that one has no tangible proof of, based on our limited faculties on this plane. This is an interesting and cool concept, especially when you think of it being explored by sentient food items However, what breaks the film for me is how Sausage Party deals with its B-stories and props up this central narrative.
Lazy Isms & Offensive Directions
In Sausage Party’s case, there is a very clear commitment to being offensive. Now, shout out to friend of the brand Rob and his theory: one could argue that supermarkets themselves are racist. Every style of food is grouped by ethnicity or nationality — the “Latin” food goes here, the “Mediterranean” food goes there, the “Urban” food goes back there, the “Asian” food goes over there, etc. In Sausage Party, these representations are taken to the next level; each enclave is racialized, with characters sporting accents to boot. Additionally, queer characters, from the nonperishable Twinkie named “Twink” to the entire fruit section, are easily pigeonholed.
However, I can’t subscribe to this theory because it gives too much space to a lazily constructed world of stereotypes. Moreover, there’s nothing remotely interesting about these different presentations except to provide shock laughs, or worse, satire at the expense of the presented identity versus a comedy that targets the reasons that all these stereotypes or racist labelings even exist in the world in the first place.
In my head, if we’re going to be using identity stereotypes in 2016, they need to serve a purpose that hinges on examining the stereotype instead of playing for laughs based solely on that stereotype’s history. There’s no real earned laugh in presenting a categorically offensive Native American character or a box of ‘Black’ grits; there’s nothing interesting about the entire fruit section being ‘gay.’ When these characters produce laughs, it makes me question where the laugh is coming from, in addition to where the writer intended the laugh to come from.
For instance, it’s interesting that the only relationship that’s both stereotyped and has what could pass for narrative growth is between a Jewish bagel, Sammy, and Arab-coded lavash wrap, Kareem. Clearly an analogy for Israeli-Palestinian tensions, the two start off as bitter enemies and end up serious fuck buddies. With the latter being a payoff to this B-Story, it makes sense. But in my opinion it’s lazy writing. Rogen and this entire camp have successfully made films for years that enjoyed getting laughs rooted in homoeroticism amongst dudebros. With that, it felt pretty easy to conclude that Rogen would apply that same filter to the contentious and violent relationship between Sammy and Kareem.
There’s no real twist to the Rogen formula there, if you’re paying attention. But in terms of their relationship itself, Kareem and Sammy “evolve” (to quote Rob), whereas Teresa the taco is reduced to a lusty Latinx lesbian whose existence in the narrative is more plot device than character. This shouldn’t be a surprise, given that the template here is male-focused, as is most of Rogen’s oeuvre. However, when you look at it in context of the film, it’s troubling because it reinforces my feeling that this entire film is just a sad and shitty attempt at tackling some very big ideas while literally trying to be offensive just for offense’s sake.
It can be argued that the two worlds are connected: offense and metaphysical narrative. From ‘Wise Indian’ Firewater purveying lies instead of truths, to Brenda’s repression of her own sexuality in order to uphold a belief system that is very clearly falling apart, each stereotype informs a tangible issue that is ultimately meaningless in the face of the larger threat (see: humans eating/using Frank and his friends). I don’t want to rob the nuance of this. But I also think that the same interactions could have been both more salient and, at the very least, less entwined with such damning stereotypes and pigeonholing.
No Country for Nuance
Sausage Party clearly is meant to be offensive. And, often, satire is just that. In fact, that’s what it’s meant to be: a punk-influenced ‘fuck you’ to your sensibilities that forces you to confront yourself and the things you or others deem near, dear, normal, or given. Despite this, with the rise of more diverse voices and ideas breaking into (and affecting) the mainstream, many of us are realizing that ‘satire’ is often a codeword. For every person who utters it vehemently in defense of ever-increasingly offensive material, bastions are built for those with a very particular kind of privilege (see: white and male).
If anything, the events that sparked the recent violent, and racially motivated, digital assault on comedian Leslie Jones should be a painful example of this. In that case, alt-right leaders gave their hate-filled jabs at Jones (which spurred the more vicious attacks against her) carte-blanche under the banner of ‘satire.’ This vicious dog-whistle is just that: a call to defend a space that is somehow under attack by less-privileged people, who simply are trying to get equity in [insert arena here]. Thus, when we connect this back to satire and comedy, it’s important to remember that many of us do not have the privilege of simply engaging with the products of these ‘free expressions.’
And in these particular forms of satire, as expressed by Rogen and his friends, it’s even harder. That’s because they are often more half-baked attempts at deeper conversation/contemplation than anything else. What’s worse, and especially in the case of Sausage Party, these cinematic hot takes often uphold offensiveness and discomfort as the sole metric for success of the message.
For instance, why do we need heavily hammy scenes of untrustworthy Mexican tequila (voiced by a white man no less) or Salma Hayek’s taco character constantly commenting on her own horniness? What do either have to do with existential threats? This is dangerous because it hinges the comedy’s success on some of the very people that it may be trying to open up to a less problematic way of life, while alienating the people who can see the underlying messages being sent. It’s a strange medicine-with-an-overdose-of-sugar method that I think actually misses the point of the mode of comedy itself.
This also isn’t new when it comes to damn near any Rogen & co movie. In the case of joking about the gay panic amongst bros, This is The End handles it by being overtly homoerotic for the sake of shock value. The problem is that it doesn’t actually address the issue of why gay panic happens amongst bros. There’s a pretty cut and dry example of this in the scene below:
In it, Danny McBride’s character turns out to have survived the apocalypse. In addition to becoming a cannibal, he’s also turned to dominating a gimped Channing Tatum, proudly exclaiming how often he fucks him. While the shock of the cameo is fun, the comedy that results is…ridden with issues. Namely, it simply punches up an acceptable notion that masculine-presenting cishet men like McBride can be so manly that there’s nothing weird about being a little gay with his male friends. Moreover, because McBride is such an overblown stereotype of this particular masculinity, with Tatum assuming a more ‘femme’ role, it presents a shitty paradigm wherein the joke is about how feminized and powerless (because of his feminization) Tatum is.
The laugh that’s induced then is dependent upon the very same queer- and femmephobia that supposedly doesn’t affect McBride. See how that shit makes no damn sense? In effect then, it’s a fugazi form of their particular form of satire: the thing being ridiculed cannot be properly discussed or exposed because the very function of its comedy depends upon the conventions that it supposedly attacks. Note however that satire can don the clothing of the villains it aims to crucify. But are they truly looking? Do they even know who exactly is on the chopping block?
Let’s rewind to 2004.
The Chappelle Show is literally printing money per episode. And yet, in the midst of it, Dave quits. Straight up walks out and absconds to some safe space, somewhere. Before peacing out, he cited his concerns with who was laughing and why. For him, his satirical takes, specifically on race, were garnering the wrong laughs. Instead of laughing at the subject being ridiculed (more often than not it was the young, white, male audience he accrued), he found that his audiences were still laughing at the characters and the ‘realities’ they represented themselves. These ‘realities’ however were baseless at best, and grossly misinformed or maliciously constructed at worse. In either case, instead of processing the conversation he sought to curate, Chappelle saw that his (white) audiences were finding joy in the stereotypes he hoped to examine. [Writer’s Note: The Chappelle Show, in hindsight, is also wild problematic. But that’s another piece for another time.]
Now come back to 2016.
A black man commenting on race and society Rogen is not. But, I do think he has aspirations for his work. However, I think that in rooting so much of it in these processed-food stereotypes as a vehicle for deeper convo, he’s hamstrung an ambitious film. Moreover, by rooting so much of this in identities that are not privileged like his audience, he allows a theater of freaks and follies wherein the audience can laugh at everything but themselves.
Where is the laugh that feels shameful for the ‘normal’ non-stereotyped (see: white-coded audience *and* characters)?
I’d argue that there isn’t one. Especially when we’re s talking about the lowest common denominator audience. It’s a Catch-22 that only benefits the comedian and the audience privileged enough to laugh at it from a place that isn’t traumatic.
In the case of Sausage Party, this same function plays out: from the -ism stereotypes to the the final group orgy. In each case, the comedy hinges on the ‘abnormal’ subject being played for shock value or couched -isms. For the racist stereotypes, you’re laughing at Firewater, Mr. Grits, and Twink (and others), when you should be laughing at why their characters exist. For the orgy, you’re laughing at the pure shock value of the situation, versus the ridiculous closeted curiosity of the characters involved. Thus, rather than being a scene whose comedy is found in catharsis, it becomes grossly strange and shocking, for the sake of those reactions and not in spite of them.
Is it always entirely this? No. Nothing in this world is absolute. And as much as I stand on this (African black) soap box, the film does try. Or maybe, some parts of the comedy shined through to make a bridge between ‘offensive thing’ and ‘deeper issue’. In the case of the stereotypes, I’m sure even the grand archduke of bros must’ve smelled something deeper going on in the Sammy/Kareem relationship that wasn’t all ass-eating and middle eastern tension. In the case of the orgy, there is something to be said about questioning just how ‘good’ such an extreme moment of hedonism is for us in the aftermath of mass trauma. But even then, I wonder if folks who may exclusively enjoy the low-hanging fruit are really thinking about that, let alone pick up on it.
When we consider all of the above, it’s clear that Sausage Party is a film that is equally ambitious and par for the course for Rogen & Co. Its premise of discussing existential societal issues and aspiration to convince the industry that adults like animation are both hamstrung by its inability to carry itself without relying on some of the same usages of subliminal and outright racist stereotypes, faux-progressive notions, and simple close-mindedness that’s killing Hollywood to this day. In a way, it’s ironic that a film that would try to help Tinsel Town evolve is just as archaic, in many, as its target.
The worst part is, they got my money. And maybe they got yours too. Which means maybe it’ll actually succeed. Which is scary, because then we’re guaranteed to have even more faux-beta-bro narratives that claim, explicitly or implicitly, to challenge status quos, all while enforcing them. But maybe that’s why Sausage Party is actually doing well at the box office. In spite of its punk-atheist attitude, the film doesn’t challenge its audience but gives them the very thing that they thirst for: in-your-face attitude, shock humor, and ‘it’s okay to laugh at it because I know deep down I’m not racist’ racist jokes.
I could also be totally wrong. Maybe the film is just a meta-commentary on the deeply offensive and whimsical world of animation, as envisioned by Walt Disney. It’s not a totally hare-brained theory, considering Rogen’s own marketing campaign for the film had him fashioned as a Bizarro Walt, showing off his delightfully crass creations. It’d be a nice reprieve from all of this…deep thought here. I want to think, and know, that not everyone who enjoys movies like this are somehow deeply racist, sexist, and plagued by a slew of other -isms. I certainly know a few.
But, maybe to Rob’s point, that’s not the point at all here. Rather, maybe the film is just be a dirty, stoner’s interpretation of the world we live in. As simple as that sounds, it kinda makes sense. But it also deeply disappoints me because this film, and we as a people, could be so much more. And I’d rather not stake my last battle on the hill for a film that’s nowhere near as great as I think it is.
So, where does that leave us, dear reader? Or maybe, the better question is: where does that leave me? Ultimately? I’m frustrated. I’m frustrated that I saw it. That I’m providing clicks with its name. That I’m not shooting a film right now that deals with the issues above or at least is a better attempt. But I think, ultimately, I’m frustrated that crews like Rogen’s will continue to have the money, resources, time, and energy to create this and things like it.
The Original Homeboy with a Keyboard ™, dap wants to be an enigma, but he’s pretty transparent. A transplant from “Back East,” he found himself in Oakland writing about alla the fun things. He’s in love with the coco(a) (skinned women and butter,) among other things. IG | Twitter