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A laugh in a laughless world

August 17, 2007 | Page 9

The Simpsons Movie, directed by David Silverman, written by James Brooks and Matt Groening, starring Dan Castellaneta and Julie Kavner.

ELIZABETH SCHULTE on the TV series and now feature movie that always takes the right side.

THEY'RE AMERICA'S favorite TV family, and they're making its first feature appearance on the big screen.

The Simpsons have come along way from the scribbly, wavering, shorts on the Tracey Ullman Show, now replete with multimillion-dollar product tie-ins including 7-Elevens turned into Kwik-E-Marts and Krusty the Clown challenging the Burger King King (the King wins). After 18 years in circulation and with millions of fans around the world, the Simpsons Movie had a tall, yellow order to fill.

While it probably isn't exactly all that the eager Simpsons fanatic might have hoped for, the Simpsons family movie offered some red-letter moments that break all the "family movie" boundaries.

They include full-frontal male nudity, the denigration of the Bible ("This book has no answers!" exclaims Homer as his father speaks in tongues and rolls on the church floor), a drunk 10-year-old (though if time actually passed the way it should in Springfield, he would be well over the drinking age), and a man who appears to be in love with a pig. The jokes in the Simpsons Movie don't come as fast and furious as you'd wish for, but when they do, they are really funny.

The same could be said of the series as well. The show has slowed down a bit over the last couple years. The Simpsons hit their stride a few years into the series, as creator Matt Groening--also creator of the long-running strip "Life in Hell"--jam-packed each half-hour installment with non-stop laughs and layers of plot twists and turns.

The show hilariously referenced the popular culture around it, such as its amazing recreations of Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction or the 1980s science fiction classic Tron, and included tons of guest celebrity appearances.

We came to know and love a whole town of characters, learned where they came from and all their many facets. Barney the Drunk is a belching stool sitter but also shows his potential as a sorrowful and compelling filmmaker. Moe the Barkeep over and again shows his amazing potential for cruelty but also deep loneliness. Nelson the Bully, over time, shows his soft and sensitive side--and his lovely singing voice.

Principal Skinner is hen-pecked by his mother but also suffers from flashbacks from Vietnam. We smile for the sweet and caring relationship of coworkers Carl and Lenny. Unfortunately, the movie gives short shrift to many of these favorite characters, instead focusing most of the action on the family. All these characters appear, but largely in mob scenes.

Over the years, The Simpsons has taken up the important topics of the day, some of them very political in nature--it has supported same-sex marriage (Marge's sister has to call off her wedding when she finds out her partner is a man pretending to be a woman), opposed the war in Iraq (In 2006, space monsters complain that they weren't greeted as liberators in "Operation Enduring Occupation"), had a strike at the nuclear power plant (to save the dental plan Homer has traded for beer), poked fun at the political system (in 1996, space aliens took over the bodies of Dole and Clinton, so that no matter which candidate won, the space aliens were taking control), taken on organized religion (Christianity in particular) and bitten the hand that feeds it (the Fox network).

And for the most part, The Simpsons always came out on the right side. Unlike another Fox comedy, Family Guy, which might on occasion provide more laughs, The Simpsons doesn't depend on making fun political correctness or laughing at the expense of someone's race, sex, sexual preference or disability.

There are a few unfortunate exceptions to this rule, such as the stereotypes of an Indian storekeeper, Apu, and the family of unbelievably stupid "hill folk."

The key to The Simpsons' success is the Simpson family itself, and what it says about families in general. All the horrors of family life are splayed out in exaggerated form--a father who drinks to excess, regularly strangles his son and is always in the center of some sort of catastrophe; a juvenile delinquent son; an overachieving daughter held back by her family; the long-suffering mother and wife; and then there's the baby (who can kill at will).

In the movie, the Simpsons face a number of key crises--the possibilities of complete environmental devastation, of the destruction of their hometown of Springfield, but most importantly the destruction of the Simpson family itself.

The end is clear. This family does everything wrong, yet they need one another to survive, whether it makes any sense or not. While the situations might be outlandish, there's nothing outlandish about the fact that a woman like Marge should drop Homer like a hot potato, but doesn't. Or that Bart should want a dad that plays catch with him, not a warped and dangerous game of truth or dare.

The fact is that while the walls in the Simpsons home may house a little bit of hell; there's a little bit of heaven, too. That explains a lot of real families pretty well.

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