Saturday, May 31, 2014

Achmed Saves America (2014)

I loathe Jeff Dunham.

I don’t mean to say I have a personal beef with him. Maybe he has a wonderful personality. Maybe he put a lot of hard work into doing all those voices whilst moving his mouth just enough for his less drunk audience members to see the bounce of his Adam’s apple. Maybe he pays his bills on time or buys a round when he goes out with Bill Engvall or Guy Fieri or Joe the Plumber or whoever; I don’t know. I just know that I find his comedy jejune, racist, and insufferably unfunny. He fancies himself an “equal opportunity offender” as he uses bland comedy to effectively monetize racism in the vein of Lisa Lampanelli, but for “equal” opportunity, he spends an inordinate amount of time touting his stereotypical Arab Muslim dummy, Achmed.

So I regret to inform you all that Achmed got a movie, and I regret to remind myself that I’ve now seen it.

In the interests of full disclosure… As it happens, in those halcyon years before Jeff Dunham achieved fame, “Achmed” had become my middle school nickname thanks to racist, rural bullies, so I can’t deny that I already approach this film with a bad association and not a little bit of confirmation bias. From what little of Achmed I’d had the misfortune to watch before this film, I’ve also always seen him as the Arab equivalent of a golliwog or Joe Jitsu or Go-Go Gomez or the Cleveland Indians logo. To put it simply, this film didn’t look prepossessing before I watched it, and I certainly didn’t end up surprised.

Achmed the Totally-Not-Muslim Terrorist

To set the stage for the abject void of humor to follow, Achmed Saves America starts off with a superfluous live-action cold open where Tinkerbubba (a Peter Pan version of Dunham’s markedly more affectionate caricature of rednecks) vouchsafes Achmed his wish to become a cartoon character. From there, we move into domestic drama with a foreign enemy.

I find the resemblance to Song of the South more than apropos.
Continuing a long reel tradition of generalizing a region over 5000 km in breadth to a single stereotypical country, Achmed’s adventure begins in Mizpakmanistan.

Get it? Get it? Because of how those Muslims make their womenfolk dress?
Mizpakmanistan apparently has a constitution and government built around prominently displaying every Arab/Muslim/terrorist stereotype imaginable, where everyone lives in caves, “knee-deep in camel poop,” where the men “cover their wives so they look like Pac-Man ghosts.”

The writers pull a Dictator (2012) and attempt to mitigate the malicious intent of the humor by having Achmed call himself a non-Muslim. At one point a presumably-moderate imam joins a rabbi and a priest in forcefully denouncing terrorists. But with the sheer number of jokes dedicated to torture, prayer, the evil of pigs, Judaism, and female agency, and minatory accusations of religious “infidelity,” it doesn’t take a genius to see the actual intent behind the humor.

No Muslim stereotypes here. Nope. No siree Bob.

The Other Main Characters (if you could call them that)

Achmed quickly suicide-bombs his way into his famous skeletal form before accidentally hitching a ride to his hated enemy, America. There, he comes to live with his naïve, beneficent “host family,” the Wilsons, the blandest animated family in television history.

Do you know anything about these characters at first glance, except that you really don’t care about them?
A grade school child could draw the Wilsons. The lack of any volume or character or line of action in their design evokes Family Guy, the TV show that the creators here clearly want to imitate. Even Family Guy, for its own simplistic and disorganized art style, has variation in jaws and eyes and skin tone. Neither the distinctive stylistic touches of The Simpsons, the instantly identifiable characterization of Fugget About It or Bob’s Burgers, nor the specificity and consistency of King of the Hill appear here. It looks like somebody designed every character in this movie except Achmed in the space of two hours.

From here, the plot follows all of the boring comedy movies you’ve already seen: Achmed endears himself to his family, he abjures his terrorist ways, he later gets outed, and he has to redeem himself and save the family for taking his blame, proving that his loyalties lie with America.

I’d probably find this shot funny if I didn’t have to watch the movie to see it.
The first half concerns itself with Achmed ingratiating himself with the Wilsons in the most boring sitcom possible. The second half sees Achmed reunite with his erstwhile boss, Hassan al-Hassan, in the most boring buddy-comedy possible. Achmed spends the second half of the movie prolixly informing Hassan of America’s greatness with alacrity and persuading Hassan to get over his irrational anti-American dudgeon, all while they evade Americans who want to kill them.

Achmed and Hassan hide from the eight people who care about this movie enough to advance the story by bothering to look for them.

The Politics… or Something

Late in the film, two men who had spent most of the running time at each other’s throats spontaneously fall in love with each other, but the camera cuts away just before their lips make contact. This serves as a microcosm for the film’s entire political “statement”… which it doesn’t really have.

The film constantly comes close to—and stops short of—actually having something substantial to say. One minute the characters accuse Michelle Obama of terrorism; the next, Achmed accuses both political extremes of screwing up America. Characters will occasionally mention unjust imprisonment, the decline of American businesses, or American provinciality, but these ideas quickly get trampled on by Achmed’s newfound blind jingoism before they can add up to an actual statement.

We also see some skewering of both sides of the political spectrum, although the left gets it considerably worse than the right. For most of the film, Carl Zimmer fills the role of the former, a supercilious, effeminate, credulous Democrat who takes inordinate pride in his Toyota Prius and behaves rudely to all. His counterpart, Chet Anderson (another Jeff Dunham role), receives a surfeit of screen-time as a poor man’s Burt Gummer, albeit a relatively affable, ultra-conservative one. The writers make a point of showing that the latter has fundamentally good intentions in between bouts of complaining about minorities and foreigners.

In probably the only instance of mise-en-scène in the film, these three characters represent their spots in the spectrum.
This comes to a head in a media montage where left-wing talking heads get noticeably more mean-spirited caricatures than their right-wing counterpart Bill O’Reilly.

This aquiline not-Rachel Maddow leers smugly behind a poop-logo.
Not-Oprah Winfrey can’t stop eating long enough to make a point.
Not-Bill O’Reilly… squints. How edgy.
None of this would bother me so much if the film would simply make a point and stick with it. If the film wanted to say that we don’t give America’s enemies a fair chance to get to know us, or that we need to keep immigrants out to feel safe, or that America’s isolationism heralds its eventual demise, I’d at least feel like I watched the film for a reason. Hearing the film continually start to say these things and end with a derivative gag ripped from Seth MacFarlane’s playbook somehow makes the film more vexatious than if director Frank Marino and writer Michael Price had risked saying something invidious. The half-hearted political statements ultimately end up as frustrating as the vanilla humor.

Look, Marino and Price, I get it. You see America as a nation in dire straits. Point of fact, I agree. But if you want to revitalize American industry and bring back the middle class so badly, then instead of making money for the fourth-largest media conglomerate and the third highest-paid comedian in America, start by making a point.

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