I think it’s pretty close to undeniable at this point that Seth Rogen is the most consistently impressive comedy star working in Hollywood. It hasn’t even been a full ten years since his first major starring role in Knocked Up and he’s already amassed a strong filmography with films like
Pineapple Express, Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Observe and Report, and 50/50 under his belt and he’s also very deftly avoided putting out stinkers the way that many of his peers in comedy have. Even more impressive, he’s managed to carve out a comic identity distinct from his original mentor Judd Apatow with his time in the spotlight, especially with the films that he’s not only starred in but also written or directed alongside his frequent collaborator Evan Goldberg. These directorial efforts have all had the distinction of being noticeably more outlandish and ambitious than the average comedy and have almost always had more going on in them than their initial trailers suggest. Their 2013 hit This is the End initially looked like a weird gimmicky thing but it turned out to be this really crazy apocalyptic movie with some real insights into friendship and morality and then their 2014 film The Interview actually managed to cause an international incident as he attempted to skewer a real world dictator. But Rogen and Goldberg seem to have topped themselves in the audacious lunacy department with their latest effort (which they technically didn’t direct but are clearly the driving creative forces behind): a CGI raunchy R-rated animated film about talking food products.
The film is set in a grocery store where all the food items are alive and capable of walking and talking (unbeknownst to the customers and staff) and believe that all the humans are gods who will, by purchasing them, take them to “the great beyond” which they think to be some kind of paradise. Specifically the film follows a hot dog named Frank (Seth Rogen) who considers a hot dog bun in an adjacent package named Brenda Bunson (Kristen Wiig) to be his girlfriend. He and the other hot dogs in his package including Carl (Jonah Hill) and Barry (Michael Cera) are excited to be going to the great beyond soon as there’s an upcoming 4th of July sale coming up and think they’re sure to be selected by “the gods.” Soon though there’s a mishap that leaves him and Brenda removed from their packages and stranded in the store along with a bagel named Sammy Bagel Jr. (Edward Norton) and a Lavesh named (Kareem Abdul Lavash) who are constantly bickering about who should have the most space in their aisle. Brenda just wants to find her way back to their aisle so that they can hopefully find their way into another package and be selected again for the great beyond, but Frank has an overwhelming feeling that something strange is going on and he’s heard rumors of a wise old food item named Firewater (Bill Hader) who seems to know that there’s more to life in this store than meets the eye.
Clearly this movie was meant to be something of a parody of the Pixar animation studio, specifically their obsession with making movies about talking inanimate objects. What I maybe didn’t expect was that they would also try to imitate Pixar’s interest in using said talking objects to say deeper things than you might expect. Specifically this movie is interested in using talking food to examine the various ways that people divide each other while also looking at the function of religion in society. Let’s specifically focus on the movie’s take on religion because it’s in many ways a lot bolder than any of the swearing or the sex jokes. This is one of the most proudly atheistic movies to ever come out of Hollywood. The allegory isn’t subtle, the “gods” that the food products worship are established as being “bullshit” that was made up to make people feel better about their fates and that these beliefs are constantly being distorted to give people excuses to hurt each other. The one place the movie stumbles on this is towards the end where Frank gets pushback for not respecting other people’s beliefs once he learns the truth, then tries again by essentially saying “I respect your beliefs but…” and then more or less says the exact same thing as before and this somehow changes everyone’s mind right away. Granted, greater thinkers than Seth Rogen have tried and failed to find “respectful” ways to explain to people that their belief systems are predicated on lies, but he still falls a bit short here.’
So the movie is smarter than it looks, but is it as funny as it looks? Not exactly. It’s weird, the movie’s jokes seem awfully similar to the kind of material that normally makes me laugh in movies from Rogen and co but they never really seem to land as well here and the best I can guess is that it’s because of the animation. I’m reminded a bit of a Christmas special on the show “Community” that was done in the style of a 60s Rankin Bass special. It was a really clever episode and I admired the vision involved in making it but the comedy never really worked for me in part because the chemistry between the cast that was so central to the show’s success just didn’t seem to connect the same because they were voicing puppets instead of interacting face to face. It’s weird, this certainly isn’t a problem I have when watching something like South Park or BoJack Horseman but something about seeing comedians I’m used to seeing in the flesh hidden behind animation that never quite connects the same way for me. It’s almost like an uncanny valley of comedy.
Now none of that is to say I found the movie to be actively unfunny, I didn’t, I just didn’t feel like it made me laugh as much as it should have given all the outrageousness and the people behind it. So, this is a comedy that I didn’t think was funny enough, which would seem to be a pretty damning indictment, but it really isn’t and I actually rather like the movie overall. Whatever the movie lacks in belly laughs it makes up in chutzpah. It isn’t exactly subtle, it trades a bit uncomfortably in racial stereotypes, and isn’t above making some rather lowbrow jokes, but often it’s just crazy enough to work. It’s not every day you see a CGI animated movie about food that walks, talks, and fucks and the fact that Rogen was able to turn that weird stoned daydream of a concept into a workable movie with a bit of social insight is… well there’s just something admirable about that any way you cut it. It’s definitely not a movie for everyone but if the film’s trailer and advertising leave you intrigued rather than disgusted you will likely find that the actual movie exceeds you expectations.