Sausage Party, an R-Rated stoner comedy about what would happen if our food was secretly alive and oddly as divided by religion and faith as humans, is in some ways a giant step forward for Seth Rogen and his frequent collaborators. In other ways, though, it is a good short movie idea stretched beyond its breaking point. It has South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut and Team America: World Police-sized ambitions, and is easily the most purposefully tasteless comedy in a good long while. I just wish it was funnier.
Seth Rogen, usually in partnership with Evan Goldberg, practices a storytelling formula he learned from Judd Apatow on the set of The 40-Year-Old Virgin – hook audiences with the easy-to-understand dumb; surprise them with some actual legit social commentary. As such, Rogen has churned out one dumb, R-Rated stoner comedy after another, all of them aiming deceptively higher than audiences anticipated.
But it’s getting a bit old. Rogen’s fallen into a pattern of telling the same basic story about male friendship weaved into different genres, be it a teen sex comedy (Superbad), Cheech and Chong riff (Pineapple Express), sci-fi apocalypse (This Is the End), Christmas movie spoof (The Night Before) or spy spoof (The Interview). Even the Neighbors movies, in which Rogen appeared to transition into more adult concerns over fatherhood and marriage, still feature elements of the old familiar narrative just re-directed toward Zac Efron and Dave Franco.
It feels like it’s time to change things up, and that’s exactly what’s happening. First through AMC’s Preacher and now with Sausage Party, Rogen is moving away from his norm and more toward a focus on faith and religion, after having previously used it as the butt of jokes in This Is the End and Night Before. This transition comes naturally for him, as he told Variety:
“Theology was always a part of [Evan and I’s] lives and as we got older we really became fascinated with analyzing in. You want to make movies about what you’re thinking about. What’s shocking, though, is how few other people seem to make movies about it. Smarter people should be doing this! This is a plea to more intelligent filmmakers. Chris Nolan should be making theological movies. He’s wasting his time with time travel and s—!”
Of course, Rogen’s still following a familiar formula. Sausage Party is a purposefully goofy title which translates to a pun-tastic one-sheet with a familiar color pattern:
There’s an easily identifiable genre being spoofed, in this case the Pixar “What if?” features like Toy Story. Audiences are supposed to be reeled in by the promise of a raunchy comedy about a bunch of anthropomorphized food items that just want to fuck, and before they know what hits them they’re watching Rogen and pals’ best attempt at an Animal Farm-esque allegory using food items instead of animals and religion/faith instead of Stalinist Russia.
Here’s how it plays out: various food items and other assorted products at a fictional grocery store all view humans as gods. They start each day with a massive singalong (an Alan Menken-penned tune called “The Great Beyond”) reinforcing their shared believed system which states that to be purchased by one of the gods and thus removed from the store is to ascend to heaven. However, if they in any way anger the gods they will be denied their promised trip to the great beyond. As such, a horny hot dog named Frank (Rogen) and beguiling bun named Benda (Kristen Wiig, the funniest she’s been in quite some time) flirt with each other from beneath their packaging but do everything they can to stay good, assured there will be as much bun-filling as they can handle once they’re selected by the gods.
After a shopping cart mishap, Frank and Brenda are left behind while their friends are taken home by a shopper. Out of their packaging for the first time and further away from home than ever before, Frank and Brenda embark on what amounts to a road trip back to the hot dog and bun aisle. Along the way, Frank searches for the truth of their existence while Brenda falls back on her faith while repeatedly resisting any impure urges for fear of angering the gods.
Before you go thinking too highly of this premise just know Frank and Brenda are pursued by an increasingly insane, foul-mouthed douche. No, seriously, a literal douche, voiced by Nick Kroll, whose presence results in multiple close-ups of the god’s crotches since that’s where the douche longs to be. Plus, Frank and Brenda are accompanied by knowingly offensive racial caricatures in the form of a bagel who talks exactly like Woody Allen (voiced by Edward Norton), a flatbread Muslim taking its cues from Not Without My Daughter and eventually, a saucy taco voiced quite recognizably by Selma Hayek.
That right there is the bizarre give and take of Sausage Party. There are some really interesting ideas in play, ideas about intolerance and the things which divide us as a society, but it’s sometimes hard to see them through the frequently literal haze of pot smoke and an endless barrage of foul language and guy talk. You can practically hear Seth Rogen’s signature Beavis & Butthead-esque laugh behind every line while telling his co-writers, “Oh, man, that’s awesome [heh heh heh heh heh]! We’ll have the grits be like a 70s black guy, and have him hate crackers but, you know, like literal crackers [heh heh heh heh heh]! Yes, write that shit down!”
And it all grows so remarkably repetitive. The film’s best (to us, food falling on the floor is a minor hassle; to them, it’s a Saving Private Ryan D-Day-esque battle scene) and worst (characters saying things like “How do you like them apples?” only for an actual apple to pop in the background and ask, “Huh. Are you talking to me?”) comedy bits are repeated ad nauseum to seriously diminishing results.
Moreover, the shock comedy starts to wear on you after a while. For example, the parade of food items being depicted according to the racial stereotypes of the people who consume those items (e.g., Sauerkraut jars are a bunch of Nazi’s, a Tequila bottle sounds like a drunken, lazy Mexican, a potato is a kindly Irish man) starts out as vaguely clever (e.g., yeah, our grocery stores are kind of like model UNs if you think about it) before quickly turning lazy and borderline offensive. I kept imagining how the conversation must have gone when they told Hayek, an Oscar-nominated actress from Mexico, they wanted her to play a racially stereotyped taco whose only progressive attribute is that she is hiding her burgeoning lesbianism.
There is an argument to be made that this type of comedy is more palatable in animation, that they’re simply tweaking long-standing Disney tradition and since these characters are anthropomorphized and thus not actual people they have more freedom to play with stereotypes. There are smart ways you can do that , though (look at Zootopia), and Sausage Party simply seems too hung up on on its unflinching immaturity. As is, by the time Sausage Party‘s Firewater character talked like an old western Native American and a parade of fruit items were depicted as Nathan Lane in Birdcage-level gay I was fidgeting a bit uncomfortably in my seat, similar to how I felt the first time I saw Team America’s Kim Jong Il sing “I’m So Ronery.” It feels like PC-puncturing comedy delivered by white privilege.
Yet I didn’t walk out of the theater completely disappointed. I laughed a time or two (an R-Rated Kristen Wiig is the best possible version of her), and the climactic food orgy is definitely up there with Team America in all of its “Holy Shit!” glory. Based upon Rogen’s prior films, I knew I was walking into something which would seem a tad self-indulgent, overly reliant on immature humor and drowning in obscenities, but there’d be an interesting idea behind it, something grounding everything in such a way that you could at least say, “I appreciate what you’re trying to do here.”
That’s ultimately how I felt about Sausage Party – I appreciated the effort. Buried beneath the dick jokes and f-bombs is a commentary on the impact of faith and religious intolerance on society, and like most of Rogen’s films there are at least a couple of good laughs, depending on your tolerance level for shock humor and racial stereotypes.
ROTTENTOMATOES: 83% – “Sausage Party is definitely offensive, but backs up its enthusiastic profanity with an impressively high gag-to-laugh ratio — and a surprisingly thought-provoking storyline.”