Sausage Party

August 19, 2016
'Sausage Party' (2016)
'Sausage Party' (2016)

In Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel, White Noise, two professors from a Mid-western University roam around a supermarket with their shopping trolleys. Murray, from the Department of Popular Culture, analyses the experience and decides it’s like being in a Tibetan temple. “Look how well-lighted everything is…” he says, “sealed off…timeless… Dying is an art in Tibet…Chants, horoscopes, recitations. Here we don’t die, we shop. But the difference is less marked than you think.”

One wonders what Murray might have made of Sausage Party, an animated comedy set in a supermarket, in which the goods on the shelves have developed their own cosmology. The humans with their shopping carts are the Gods who will carry them to The Great Beyond, where life is paradise for merchandise. Or so they think.

A rude awakening arrives when a pot of honey mustard is returned to the store and tells a horrifying tale about what he has seen in the Great Beyond. It’s all murder, mayhem and degradation, as the Gods wantonly torture, kill and eat the goods they bring home. Frank, a lone frankfurter (voiced by Seth Rogen), decides he has to make the store aware of the truth and battles to overcome the resistance of the faithful.

That, in a nutshell, is the plot of Sausage Party, but the actual experience of the film is another story. To give you some idea just how crude, smutty and adolescent this movie gets, Sacha Baron Cohen – who gave us Borat (2006) – says he was appalled by it. Needless to say it has been a raging success at the US box office.

The script gives the impression it was written by a bunch of teenagers sitting around a bong, although it is credited to Evan Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, with directorial duties being shared by Conrad Vernon and Greg Tiernan (the latter a veteran of many episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine). It’s one long series of snickers and double entendres. The love interest is played out between Frank and Brenda the Bun (Kristen Wiig), although Brenda’s ample flanks also inflame the sapphic desires of Teresa Taco (Salma Hayek).

Sausage Party is one of those satires that is so broad-ranging it could encompass almost any target. It is an R-rated spoof on the films put out by Pixar studios that also sends up mainstream attitudes towards race, sex and religion. It could even be seen as a critique of consumerism, or the crude ethnic stereotyping found in so much packaging. It sets out to be so offensive it transcends offence. If everyone is caricatured, from the Jews to the Arabs to the Mexicans to the Afro-Americans, how could anyone feel singled out?

The film is compulsively watchable, if only because one keeps wondering how gross it can get. This kind of humour may appeal to 100 million Americans but it leaves me feeling a bit queasy. Nevertheless, a large part of the audience seemed to think that non-stop swearing and dick jokes represent the quintessence of wit.

The night after I saw Sausage Party, it was the opening of the 7th Korean Film Festival in Australia (KOFFIA), where the featured movie was Jung Ji-woo’s 4th Place. It’s the story of a boy who loves swimming, driven to compete at an ever higher intensity by a mother concerned only with winning. This allows her to accept the methods of a coach who believes in beating his pupils into shape – a legacy of his own experience as a talented but undisciplined swimming champion.

Well written, well acted, and dramatically effective, the movie was expected to be a hit in Korea but failed to bring in audiences. The obvious reason is that it shines too harsh a light on the crazed competitiveness of Korean society and the unrealistic expectations with which parents burden their children.

Looking back over two contrasting nights at the cinema I was drawn to compare movies that could both be classified as social critiques. The American film took the route of lowbrow comedy, turning a mirror on its audience via their own consumption habits. The Korean feature, fiercely realistic, asked audiences to address an ingrained competitiveness which verges on barbarism.

The difference is that American audiences are lapping up Sausage Party, while Koreans avoided 4th Place. One film struck an uncomfortable chord while the other allowed viewers to laugh, and enjoy seeing their worst prejudices confirmed. It’s difficult to believe anyone who might be genuinely offended by Sausage Party would go along in the first place, or stay to the end. The film echoes the polarisation of American society into narrow right-wing bigotry on one hand, and lunatic political correctness on the other. Seth Rogen and his pals are comfortably in the middle, happy to send up both sides of the argument with a piece of crassly populist entertainment.

One feels for Jung Ji-woo, who has not chosen the easy path, making a brave, tough movie that takes on a problem many Koreans would sooner ignore. He may not win any popularity contests, but those who do see his film are much more likely to stand back and take a hard look at themselves.

Sausage Party
Directed by Conrad Vernon & Greg Tiernan
Written by Evan Hunter, Ariel Shaffir, Evan Goldberg & Seth Rogen
Voices of: Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Michael Cera, Nick Kroll, Salma Hayek, Bill Hader, Edward Norton, David Krumholtz, Jonah Hill, James Franco
USA, rated MA 15+, 89 mins

4th Place
Written & directed by Jun Ji-woo
Starring Yoo Jae-Sang, Lee Hang-na, Park Hae-Joon,
South Korea, No age restrictions, 120 mins
www.koffia.com.au

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 20th August, 2016.