The most depressing thing about Netflix's “America: The Motion Picture” — and there are a lot of things in that crowded category — is the inescapable feeling that it was made for someone exactly like me. It is directed by Matt Thompson, a regular collaborator of “Archer” creator Adam Reed, and I love “Archer.” There are lots of "Star Wars" references, as well as jokes about "Dune" and "Robocop." In fact, it's all silly, intentionally cheap reference humor, and all the references are to stuff liked by people squarely in my demographic, with some socially conscious jokes — several of them pretty good — thrown in.
I’m sorry to report, however, that it is not just bad, but that it is kind of offensively bad. It's not bad in the sense that its humor is nasty, or even that the jokes are overly gross — it's bad because you get the sense that it sort of hates its ideal viewer. To watch this movie is to hear a friend you thought liked you say, “Check this out; you like this kind of slop, right?”
Truly, I have no idea what “America: The Motion Picture” is supposed to be about, beyond a movie that dares to ask the question, “What if we made a movie that was 10th-grade U.S. history, but all at once?”
Maybe it’s supposed to be a riff on the 1980s action series “The A-Team,” with a bunch of historical figures as the members of the gang; there’s definitely a homage to the show’s famous intro sequence in there. Maybe it’s supposed to be a goofy tribute to “The Fast and the Furious” movies, of which there is an extended parody sequence. Maybe it’s a version of “Star Wars,” in which George Washington (Channing Tatum) is the Luke Skywalker character and King George (Simon Pegg) is Darth Vader and Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte) is sort of like Obi-Wan Kenobi, at the end. (There are, as mentioned, lots and lots of “Star Wars” reference jokes.)
The sum of all these disparate parts isn’t an interesting mashup in which chunks of one work of art comment profitably on bits of another.
The trouble is that none of the jokes or the references naturally fit together, and the film not only doesn't try to explain them, the lack of explanation is itself the movie’s main joke — and that’s only clever the first 70 times.
Benedict Arnold (Andy Samberg) is here. He’s a werewolf. Why? I don’t know. Killer Mike is in this movie, too, as a blacksmith; I’m happy to see him but I don’t know what he’s there for. Raoul Trujillo plays Geronimo — an Indigenous leader from the Apache nation born in 1829 in modern-day New Mexico (which was, during the American Revolutionary War, actually part of Spain) — who jumps out of a plane shouting “meeeeeee!” which was pretty funny until my friend Jason Bailey sent me this link to the same joke in “Hot Shots: Part Deux.” Bobby Moynihan plays Paul Revere, and Jason Mantzoukas plays Sam Adams, — he, at least, is very good, which is kind of a surprise. That's not because Mantzoukas isn’t usually delightful, but because everybody else barely registers.
The script is by Dave Callaham, who wrote “Mortal Kombat” and “Wonder Woman: 1984,” which are also bad.
I feel obligated to observe that this is not a movie devoid of laughs. When George Washington meets Martha Dandridge (Judy Greer, who is always wonderful), his future wife, after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theater by Benedict Arnold (this embroiders the truth somewhat), he says, “You’re Martha Dandridge! You were on stage that night!”
“And you’re George Washington, inventor of peanut butter!” she responds.
“The same,” he says with a sigh.
Truly, I have no idea what “America: The Motion Picture” is supposed to be about.
This is funny! (Yes, I know George Washington Carver did not invent peanut butter.) There seems to have been the possibility of more good jokes, too, but instead we ended up with gags stolen directly from other films, and great comic actors doing their usual schticky thing but without seeming to interact with one another beyond the completely superficial (again, except Mantzoukas, an actor who can perform a deep, unspoken emotional history with a potted geranium).
There is a school of animated comedy that gives the impression of being made up before your very eyes but, in fact, the improvised parts of something like the much-memed “Interdimensional Cable” episodes of “Rick and Morty” take place within a rock-solid fictional framework; the contrast between the careful world-building and the tossed-off gags is what makes us laugh.
“America: The Motion Picture” is like having a box of old toys dumped on your head instead. Ow, that was a joke about an "Avengers" movie. A "Lord of the Rings" sight gag hit me in the eye. Duck, here come some more "Star Wars" jokes.
But the sum of all these disparate parts isn’t an interesting mashup in which chunks of one work of art comment profitably on bits of another, as happened in the “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” comics or a remix of Jay-Z’s “The Black Album” with The Beatles’ “The White Album.” It’s just chaos.
Again, there are good gags — the British personnel carriers are “Star Wars”-style AT-AT mechanical dinosaurs made out of red double-decker buses — but there are way too many others that Thompson seems to have just shrugged off as acceptable missed shots. That’s the stuff that should have been trimmed out three drafts ago.
Instead, the movie throws the kitchen sink at us, because we look like the sort of people who wash our hands.