Channing Tatum is George Washington in a 90-minute pop culture casserole reworking of 1776 that has too much energy and not enough imagination.
“America: The Motion Picture” gives George Washington chainsaw arms. As far as historical rewrites are concerned, that is not nothing. If the cherry tree story has always been fiction – not to mention dozens of other anecdotes about historical figures who have found their way into conventional understanding about the Great Men of History – why not tell a nonsensical version of 1776 with mechanized weapon arms?
That’s about as close to making a salient point as this movie gets. For those watching who consider anything other than deference to the founders to be insufficient, this won’t be their cup of Boston Lager. For others looking for an insightful take away from the mythologizing of American history, there isn’t much for them to find either. “America: The Motion Picture” is a goofy mishmash of riffs on prominent historical figures, often slightly more ambitious than that commercial where ol’ GW drives a Dodge Challenger with a Hemi engine. Most of the time it’s knowingly stupid, which makes watching 90 minutes of occasional fun and frequent indifference.
Armed with the idea of moving forward with the Declaration of Independence (which was about to happen, but not in this timeline), Washington convenes a ragtag team of notable names from several centuries of American history, usually introduced in a parade of lazy “what if x , but y” setups. Samuel Adams (Jason Mantzoukas) is a crass Gaston knock-off, Paul Revere (Bobby Moynihan) is recruited into a neon-lit “2 Fast 2 Furious”-style thoroughbred race, and the Tony Stark/Salem Witch hybrid they encounter turns out to be Thomas Edison (Olivia Munn). It’s a not-so-imaginative “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” meets a not-so-funny “Clone High” (the latter made all the more confusing and disappointing, as Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are on board as producers).
The jokes in “America: The Motion Picture” come in various forms. Sometimes it means the Washington team and Arnold yelling at each other like they’re six drinks deep during spring break in Cabo (it’s getting old fast) or getting baffled by references to inventions that, in theory, haven’t been invented yet (effectively, if you know the Indignant Voice by Mantzoukas is hilarious) or alternative explanations for American iconography (did you happen to know that the word ‘Address’ has two different meanings or that there’s a crack in the Liberty Bell?) or the kind of long-way-to-a- payoff jokes that somehow work way better than they should (a flashback late in the movie lets Tatum skilfully slide into a punch line too precious to spoil here).
The more “America: The Motion Picture” relies on pure parody, the scarcer that laugh feels. Simon Pegg makes an absolute meal of his time as King James, but by the time it’s clear he’s little more than the Emperor to Arnold’s Vader, the choice is enough to make you wonder what the point of it all is. There’s a fife-and-drum remix of a classic movie theme that’s a nice feat for composer Mark Mothersbaugh and his Mutato Muzika, but the way it’s used feels like something ripped out of a “Shrek” movie. It’s not that Munn’s Edison or Raoul Max Trujillo’s Geronimo or Killer Mike’s Blacksmith are radical reinventions of this movie’s formula, but when they’re in the spotlight, at least it forces “America: The Motion Picture” to try something. making news instead of fusing old ideas together.
But if the rest of the film tends to swing, as is standard with other Floyd County productions (including “Archer” and last year’s fantastical “Dicktown”), it comes across when the cast is really having a good time. seems to have. Even Judy Greer, saddled with a Martha Washington who is as volatile and tangential to this film’s plot as anything else, finds something to choose from among all the absurdity. Tatum backs his bona fide beliefs as a comedic protagonist, while Moynihan seems to enjoy being the only one expected to zigzag while everyone else saw. And this is as close to uncut, untethered Mantzoukas as any of his voice roles have ever been.
The Washington crew and the Redcoat forces are heading for a final showdown, one that eventually becomes a “Ready Player One”-esque climax to the battle royale. (Credit where it should go: “America: The Motion Picture” is a third-order mashup of mashup mashups.) It’s where director Matt Thompson really comes to shine, filling the frame with as much unhinged chaos as the screen can handle. As the overall project of the film piles things on top of things, it’s entertaining in its own distinct way to see all the ingredients of the pop culture casserole cut each other’s heads.
But then it’s all a bit too late. The ending of “America: The Motion Picture” encompasses some of the more charged parts of American history that characters have nodded and winked at for most of its running time. The best joke in the movie might be the very last one, the joke that comes in handy that after the final credits crawl begins. Whether people want to stay through the early chaos is their free, democratic choice.
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