We aren’t quite there yet, but there will come a point when people recognize that Seth Rogen is actually a little underappreciated. He’s made some crap, sure, but when the guy actually writes and controls his projects with partner Evan Goldberg, there’s always some sort of clever genre game, surprisingly layer of emotional honesty, or gentle hint of satire between all the stoner shenanigans and inventive vulgarity. That’s never been truer than in ‘Sausage Party’, a filthy twist on anthropomorphized CG family comedy layered with some pretty effective social commentary.
The gleefully R-rated filth is the showcase, but beneath all the shock, stupid, and stoner humor is a film both subversive and inclusive. The movie has a lot going on beyond the big belly laughs, and somehow ‘Sausage Party’ just might be the best Hollywood release of the summer.
The setup is pure Pixar. It takes place in a grocery store filled with sentient food and products that awake each morning to gleefully sing out their desire to be purchased by humans (which they view as gods) and taken to the Great Beyond. Obviously, an unfortunate irony awaits those cutie pie groceries, but only viewers get to giggle about that at first. We meet a pack of hot dogs led by Frank (Rogen) who can’t wait to be swept up and finally enter the nearby buns they’ve been made for. (Frank has particularly always had his eye on an oddly sexy bun named Brenda (Kristen Wiig.) When they’re finally plopped into a shopping cart, disaster strikes. A jar of mustard that has recently been returned to the store is suicidal over the sights he saw in the Great Beyond, which he claims to be a stack of lies. When the mustard jumps out of the cart, Frank and Brenda end up on the floor trying to save him. Next thing you know, there’s a hilariously off-color mix of ‘Saving Private Ryan’ and 9/11 imagery as the gang of lost and damaged food pull themselves together on the floor. They find out they aren’t going to the Great Beyond and also learn that maybe that’s all BS anyway. Cue an inspirational, life changing adventure.
The big joke at the core of ‘Sausage Party’ is that the movie takes a ubiquitous style of animation that’s always been purely kids’ stuff and packs it full of R-rated filth. Violence, drugs, and a whole lotta sex pop up in liberal doses. (That food orgy you’ve heard about is one of those scenes that needs to be seen to be believed, and afterwards no amount of eyeball scrubbing can unsee those delightfully dirty sights.) Jokes of all types fly at the screen constantly, from shock sight gags to groan-worthy puns (often mocked as they happen).
Rogen and Goldberg (along with Jonah Hill and their now regular writing partners Kyle Hunter and Ariel Shaffir) know this stuff well. Even when the occasional gag fails, a few dozen more quickly fill its place. Animation directing veterans Greg Tiernan (lots of ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’) and Conrad Vernon (‘Shrek 2’) find an aesthetic somewhere between ‘Veggie Tales’ and Pixar that’s perfectly suited to the genre parody while also filled with some of the most adorable gore and perversion ever put on screen.
The voice cast of Rogen’s comedian friends like Wiig, Bill Hader, Michael Cera, Paul Rudd, Craig Robinson, and especially Nick Kroll (who plays a douchebag and it’s great) all bring the funny as expected. The pop comedy elements are present and the laugh totals run high. That’s what makes this the funniest movie of the summer, but there’s also a little more going on that makes this one of the best movies of the summer, full stop.
Rogen and Goldberg were smart enough to not merely steal the Pixar aesthetic, but also the way that company bakes complex messages into its hit-making formula. It starts subtle, mostly for shock value. Food characters are hysterically and satirically exaggerated stereotypes (in a manner these sorts of animated films still uncomfortably wallow in) and the store is divided on racial lines. Most notably, Edward Norton does a Woody Allen impersonation as a bagel while David Krumholtz plays a pita, and they form a mini Israeli conflict pair of sidekicks for our plucky/horny heroes. It’s comparable to ‘Blazing Saddles’, using slapstick shock to provoke while eventually commenting on the absurdity of stereotyping through a message of inclusivity. On top of that, the hero’s spiritual journey reveals the groceries’ varying religious faiths to be false, and the movie takes on an atheistic tone, but still criticizes shrilly mocking other belief systems because that tends to put up more walls than it breaks down.
Rogen and Goldberg pretty much go full ‘South Park’ here, mixing the joys of juvenile comedy with surprisingly contemplative personal philosophy and eventually settling on a message along the lines of, “We’re all fucked, we all die, there’s probably nothing after, so live in the moment and try to love rather than needlessly defining ourselves on differences and hate.” That’s pretty thoughtful stuff for a movie built on a big dick joke at the expense of family friendly cartoons (and I didn’t even get into the final meta twist that somehow sets up a sequel worth seeing). Even better, the film works on every level and is viscerally funny enough that you don’t need to even notice the braininess to enjoy the hell out of this damn dirty ditty.
‘Sausage Party’ is the best movie that Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have made and it just might be their funniest as well. It hits all the right dirty jokes and action/narrative peaks to make a packed theater explode with giddy laughter and actually has some relevant things to say about life and movies. (What else is there?) It may well end up being the best comedy of the year, and aside from ‘Inside Out’, is probably the best Pixar movie in years despite not being touched by that hallowed studio. This is a deeply strange sentence to write, but ‘Sausage Party’ is a genuinely great film that will likely grow in reputation over time. You have to be willing to giggle at bath salt and orgy humor as well as be willing to engage in discourse about race, religion and life’s purpose. That’s a combination that won’t appeal to everyone and not all audiences will necessarily even appreciate all those levels at once, but give it time. This flick’s reputation will grow.
It’s kind of amazing that ‘Sausage Party’ made it out of the Hollywood system despite all the obvious commercial elements. This thing is filled with the sort of rough edges that studios tend to rub off. God bless Megan Ellison for getting ‘Sausage Party’ made. It’s certainly the most commercial project she’s backed and should help her finance a few smaller and weirder endeavors. But it’s also unexpectedly the type of risky personal passion project that wouldn’t exist without her. Is there any way she could just run a studio already? It’s time.