Movies

America: The Motion Picture Has the Same Problems as America: The Country

The R-rated cartoon is scrappy and inventive, but fails to follow through on its best ideas.

In the cartoon, George Washington is a burly man wearing an American flag shirt and brown pants and Martha is dressed as the Statue of Liberty. Sam Adams and a female Thomas Edison wear the same American flag shirt and brown pants as George does.
George and Martha Washington, flanked by Samuel Adams (right) and Thomas Edison (obviously). Netflix

While we tend to think of the Founding Fathers as elder statesmen, many of them, as Todd Andrlik pointed out in Slate in 2013, were “younger than 40 years old in 1776, with several qualifying as Founding Teenagers or Twentysomethings.” Watching America: The Motion Picture, the R-rated animated movie directed by Archer’s Matt Thompson that is now streaming on Netflix, I wondered if maybe somebody involved in the production had heard this fact and built outward, resulting in a story where the Founding Fathers are bros, the rallying cry for the big battle is George Washington playing “Free Bird” on a sweet electric guitar, and the plot turns on the magical redemptive powers of beer. The movie even starts with a bunch of them playing beer pong and shit-talking each other. Thomas Jefferson: “At Dartmouth we play with actual paddles.” Ben Franklin: “Nobody fucking cares how you do it at Dartmouth, Tom!”

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That’s it, the most charitable possible interpretation I can offer of America: The Motion Picture. The movie, which is about a group of ragtag heroes led by George Washington (voiced by Channing Tatum) in a fight against the British, whom they call “the fun police,” is just a mess. I confess to liking the careful use of anachronism in historically themed entertainment—sometimes you do that in order to make a point about the expectations of the viewer, or the transhistorical nature of memory, blah blah blah—but this is not that. Washington is best friends with Lincoln (Will Forte), who is, early on, assassinated at a Blue Man Group–style play by Benedict Arnold (Andy Samberg), who’s, oh yes, a werewolf. After he kills Lincoln, Arnold jumps on the stage, Booth-style, and yells, “Sic semper my dick, bitches!” Looking for silver to melt down to make a bullet to kill Arnold, the gang of heroes robs a ship. That ship? The Titanic. Sam Adams (Jason Mantzoukas) talks about “the power of positive thinking.” The English king they’re fighting is “King James,” not “King George.” I could go on, and on.

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There are tiny moments where you can see how this kind of mashup of history can both be funny and make a point. Looking at a quilt that’s laid over Lincoln’s coffin, Washington sighs, “He sewed this for Trishelle when she came down with dengue fever last May Day. He laid it upon her and she healed; now she lays it upon him, but he will never heal”—an absurd line, so filled with anachronism and error, while embodying something of the structure of feeling of that time period, that it turns the corner into cleverness. Likewise, the post-coital exchange between Washington and Martha Dandridge (Judy Greer), when she says, “Gross, you were an orphan?” and he quickly says “What, of course not! Ew!”—a funny reference to the way people in the actual time period sometimes felt about those without parents. At one point, Washington runs into a room after having discovered Martha has been kidnapped, yelling “Alarum! Alarum! Alarum!” I giggled.

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But those moments of clarity are few and far between. When it comes to matters of race and difference, the politics of this film are supposed to be woke (I think?) but end up in a muddle. Three of the six core co-conspirators against the British (Washington, Adams, and Paul Revere, voiced by Bobby Moynihan) are white men and are, at the beginning of the movie, represented as being various shades of racist. The other three are not white men: Thomas Edison (Olivia Munn) is a Chinese American woman; “Blacksmith” (Killer Mike) is a Black man; Geronimo (Raoul Max Trujillo) is Native, though the others can never remember which tribe. (For the record: Apache.) There is a lot that’s odd about this mishmash: Why bend Edison’s race and gender, instead of picking a real-life Asian American or woman? Why not pick Frederick Douglass, who’s being recognized more and more, to be the representative of Blackness here, instead of making a joke about this character’s occupation? At the end, in the final battle, it turns out that “Black Smith” is actually “John Henry Smith,” and he wields a mighty hammer, but it feels weird to have this person turn out to be a mythical character when everyone else in the central Squad is a historical figure. Meanwhile, Samberg’s Benedict Arnold is a classic closeted queer-coded villain, with an evil, mincing British accent. The good guys make a failed attempt to get Benedict to come out to them, because of course they’d be totally cool with that, but the movie, having it both ways, depends for its humor on the lisping caricature.

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There is a lot of this kind of buying-off going on. Blacksmith and Geronimo pass time in a strip club complaining about their white comrades (“Can you imagine being so used to winning for your whole life that even when you lose, you’re like, We must have won that shit?” Blacksmith asks Geronimo. “That’s the definition of privilege, right there.”) But the final battle is won, when it looks like all is lost, by a diverse crowd of Americans coming over the hill at the last minute and fighting together—football players, Native people, sharecroppers with shotguns, frat boys with paddles, and Paul Bunyan alike. The scene is rousing. “Why settle for 20 friends, when you could have a million, no matter how different they look?” asks Adams, shedding his racism for the moment.

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There’s been a little bit of backlash from the right to this movie, because of its roughness (the Founders swear a lot; there are exposed breasts; when Abe Lincoln dies, he farts a bunch). But this is the least of America: The Motion Picture’s problems, which are a lot like the problems of America: The Country. The movie is at its best when it can revel in inventiveness, scrappiness, and camaraderie, and you feel the “We’re coming together! We’re beating the Big Bad!” vibes run through you. But that can only last so long, because when you set out to give people equality, there have to be consequences. At the very end, after the battle is won, Washington holds a Mission Accomplished rally, complete with banner, only to be heckled from the crowd: “What about your slaves?” As others start shouting “What about women?” and “I was under the impression we were getting our land back” and start murdering one another, Washington looks at the camera: “Oh, God, we’re gonna fuck this up, aren’t we?” Sorry to the makers of this movie: You did.

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