Team America: World Police
dir. Trey Parker
Opens Fri Oct 15.

The question is not whether Trey Parker and Matt Stone are brilliant. Their last big screen frolic, South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, is undeniable proof that they are. The question is, which side are they on? Parker and Stone take obvious delight in savaging both sides of the political and ideological fence. Unfortunately, that makes it hard to know whether their new film, Team America: World Police, is a satire or a rallying cry for the powers that be.

Part of this has to do with the buggering Parker and Stone deliver to their Hollywood neighbors. Alec Baldwin, Sean Penn, Janeane Garofalo, Matt Damon, Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon, George Clooney, and Helen Hunt (she's still alive?)--each gets spanked, slapped, and in Sarandon's case, splattered, during the course of the film. Outspoken celebrities evidently inspire much venom from Parker and Stone, and they've decided to do something about all these loose Hollywood pie holes. How do they counter all the unwanted and unwarranted bloviating from their liberal colleagues? A little bloviation of their own.

The result is an all-out assault on the popular left. Michael Moore blows up Mount Rushmore, and the L.A. elite work in cahoots with North Korea's Kim Jong Il. The message is clear: The outspoken left, especially the celebrity outspoken left, would prefer to watch America crumble. This is, of course, grossly unfair, but then fair isn't what Parker and Stone are interested in. What they're interested in is comedy, the more offensive and combative the better. Though Team America is childish, it's also funny, especially when Parker and Stone kick their delusions of insightful political muckraking aside in favor of the caustic, scatological jabs they've built their careers on. South Park may routinely tackle political subjects (and anyone who says their recent "Passion of the Jews" episode isn't sheer genius is a complete dolt), but it's the glee with which Parker and Stone bravely molest both sides of every argument that makes the show necessary viewing. That may be Team America's greatest failing: It's far too one-sided for its own good. The film is so busy skewering the pomposity of liberals that it almost lets conservatives off the hook, as though the filmmakers took a dare to try to make the most outrageous political satire possible without mentioning a certain name. It's telling that the right's biggest puppet, dear old Dubya, is basically given a pass.

Fortunately, the kindness shown Bush is not extended to all his fellow party members. Case in point: The heroic anthem "America! Fuck Yeah!" that flares up whenever the film's heroes set out on a mission. Written by Parker, "America! Fuck Yeah!" is an absurdly fitting rallying cry (you can almost hear the Muzak rendition echoing in Wal-Marts nationwide), one that perfectly distills all patriotic bluster down to its most basic message: America kicks ass, and you're a traitor if you even think otherwise. This misguided sentiment is further fleshed out by Team America's actions when policing the world. In the opening moments of the film, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Louvre are all destroyed by the group's military might, and later on Egypt's pyramids and Sphinx get similar treatment.

Parker and Stone have never been subtle, and though their subject appears to be our nation's canyon-sized division, it's clear that what they really relish is the chance to do what they have always done best: talking shit about celebrities. Hollywood actors are part of the Film Actors Guide (FAG); Michael Moore is fat; and Matt Damon's vocabulary consists of shouting, "I'm Matt Damon!" None of it is clever, per se. The jokes are obvious, and therefore only occasionally hilarious, which leads to a film that is often less inspired than it could have been. When Parker and Stone resort to a Matrix spoof for laughs, the creative well seems a tad dusty, though the spoof achieves glory because it involves marionettes.

Which brings me to Team America's true greatness--those marionettes. Heavily inspired by Gerry Anderson's Thunderbirds Are Go (which was recently bastardized by Paramount into a puppet-free "adventure"), the marionette work in Parker and Stone's film is truly amazing. The action sequences, and even the quiet moments, are triumphs of design, beautifully photographed by Bill Pope and far more complicated than any sane person(s) would even attempt, let alone succeed at creating. It's not just an homage to Anderson, it's a completion of the creepy world Anderson was so obsessed with. Team America's comedy may run from inspired to painfully flat, and the politics may be far too simplistic, but Parker and Stone have done one thing better than anyone has before: They've made the greatest marionette movie of all time.

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