Ordinarily, listing out who produced a film is never a promise of quality. It lets you know who helped create and shape the project, sure, but it’s not a guarantee that the new thing is as good as the previous. Yet, if the names Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse/The Mitchells vs. The Machines) are attached as producers, well, that’s truly a mark that what you’re about to witness is going to be something you’ve never seen before, even if it’s wrapped in a package that’s familiar. This brings us to the irreverent historical fiction that is America: The Motion Picture, written by Dave Callaham (Zombieland: Double Tap & the upcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) and directed by Matt Thompson (Frisky Dingo/Sealab 2021), which took the actual history of America and turned it into a rich tapestry of pop culture meta humor draped over slashing commentary on our country at its beginnings that is not so different from where it is now.
August 2nd, 1776: our Founding Fathers gathered together at the Pennsylvania State House in Independence Hall to sign the Declaration of Independence, a document which announced their separation from Great Britain and set the ideals which would serve as the foundation of a new nation. That is, until the British get wind and sabotage the signing. Thankfully, George Washington (voiced by Channing Tatum) and Abraham Lincoln (voiced by Will Forte) were absent from the signing as they were attending an event at Ford’s Theatre. But when tragedy strikes and all seems lost for Washington, he gathers together a group of freedom fighters — brewmaster Samuel Adams (voiced by Jason Mantzoukas), scientist Thomas Edison (voiced by Olivia Munn), rider Paul Revere (voiced by Bobby Moynihan), and famed tracker Geronimo (voiced by Raoul Max Trujillo) — to come up with a plan to take down the domineering British Empire for good. But the arrival of King James himself (voiced by Simon Pegg) on colony shores puts it into crunch time. Can this rag-tag team get the job down before the king sends his fully armed battalion to remind the rebellious colonists of his love?
A comedy you can only watch once is good for a distraction, even to change ones mood, but if it’s once-and-done, there’s not going to be much of a shelf life for it. Thankfully, like other projects touched by Lord and Miller, America is so full of jokes that it will take repeat viewings to catch them all. Some are the kind of call-backs that repeat viewings will help discover, while others are the kind of “Where’s Waldo?” that can only be found when not distracted by a different on-screen joke. For example, when Judy Greer’s Martha Dandridge (future Mrs. Washington) chats up George, take note of the background. It’ll be hard, thanks to Greer’s always superior voice work and the subtle/not-so-subtle ridiculousness of the moment, but, trust me, it’s a treasure trove of delights. America isn’t just a seek-and-find experience that’ll induce uncontrollable hilarity, nor is it just gender-bending for the sake of it; it’s an anachronistic revisionist ride that often feels like a mixture of Heavy Metal (1981) meets Comedy Central’s Drunk History. By taking real history and twisting it to their whim, Callaham and Thompson whip-up a feast of delights ranging from straight-up historical events to making a mockery of perceived history. Edison isn’t voiced by Munn because “women,” rather, it’s a means of tapping into the past and current xenophobia in our country. The team is super excited to meet the “magician,” but upon finding out that Edison is both (a) a woman and (b) Chinese, they’re hesitant. This is an example of the uncomfortable comedy prevalent throughout America, shining a light on the kind of patriarchal, nationalistic thinking which has prevented America from being the country it always talks about being. (If you aren’t familiar with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, check it out. Essentially, after bringing over Chinese immigrants to help build our country on the western shores, the American government passed a law banning them from citizenship. Good enough to build the country, not good enough to become citizens.) It should then come as no surprise that the other most reliable, trustworthy, and useful individual is also the one who sustains bodily harm soon after the new team’s formation. As if it wasn’t awkward enough that Washington kept using the colonist-created names for the various Indigenous tribes when first meeting Trujillo’s Geronimo, the injury Geronimo sustains and the team’s reaction to it is a not-so-subtle reference to just how much Indigenous peoples have sacrificed when supporting Colonist causes.
While the social commentary waivers between fine and overt, the use of historical events within the narrative is both boldly imaginative and strangely accurate. Remember, the entire thing is anachronistic, allowing for Samuel Adams to own a steampunk beer launcher, Edison to defy gravity via electricity, and Revere to transform into a robocentaur. But it also depicts Edison electrocuting an elephant, Washington’s freedom fighters invading a club called Vietnam (after which they proclaim victory despite getting their respective asses handed to them), and it’s Lincoln’s wisdom that aids them in finding a specific address in Gettysburg. As the son of a historian, there were quite a few jokes that only landed thanks to the education I received growing up and would only land because of that information. This suggests that Callaham and Thompson did their research as well, not simply creating comedy out of the fables of America’s founding, but doing the work necessary so that, more often than not, the audience may not know which aspects are taken directly from history and which are molded to fit their specific anachronistic needs. This is positively brilliant because it allows the film to work as entirely satire, sending up the ridiculousness of nationalism (often joked about via the cry “’Murica!” before someone does something stupid in real life) or just as an action comedy that presents Washington, Adams, Edison, Revere, Geronimo, and others as legendary heroes. For my money, America is better when you’re aware of the history its mining.
If you’re just looking for a ride, a mindless, thoughtless ride, America delivers. It will challenge you in initially imperceptible ways that I haven’t seen since Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You (2018). That film, also a biting satire, tells a story of an alt-reality America whose initial whimsy turns downright Wellsian as humans are transformed from figurative workhorses into literal ones. The same happens in America, as the meshing of the strange and unusual with the familiar grows increasing perverted, building toward the most wonderful cacophony of insanity, all while never losing its consistent vision. If you’ve experienced and enjoyed Spider-Verse (2018) or The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021), you’re already familiar with the method of escalation of Lord/Miller productions.
When it comes to writing reviews, more often than not, it only takes one viewing to formulate an opinion, to understand what works and what doesn’t. Because this is a Netflix release, I was afforded the ability to watch it more than once (something which a theatrical release never allows), and watch it more than once I have. In fact, I watched it twice back-to-back. I was positively giddy about the concept, the execution, the performances from the cast, and the biting social commentary. With sleeping infant upon my chest, I was forced to stifle laughter so as not to wake him and was relieved to be able to guffaw freely once EoM editor Crystal Davidson took him from me during Round 2. The things I noticed the second go-round confirmed the depth of material within America, that everything I saw the first time wasn’t the entire picture, so blinded by one joke that I missed another. I suspect that a third viewing will reveal even more. But, and this is the important part, if you take away the jokes and just focus on the story, America is not just a reinterpreted celebration of our nation’s founding, but a request to consider what our founders took upon its creation, what they have denied since, and what we the people, the citizen of America, could do to make things right. The fact that the film possesses not a single inch of frame without a pop culture reference may make it hilarious, but it never diminishes the notion that freedom isn’t free and the price is high.
Available for streaming on Netflix beginning June 30th, 2021.
Final Score: 5 out of 5.