The title and the recent review of American Sniper by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone suggest that the film, “American Sniper is “Almost Too Dumb to Criticize.” In the article, Taibbi suggests that the person who would enjoy such a film has a lot in common with the character Forrest Gump:
The message of Forrest Gump was that if you think about the hard stuff too much, you’ll either get AIDS or lose your legs. Meanwhile, the hero is the idiot who just shrugs and says “Whatever!” whenever his country asks him to do something crazy.
Forrest Gump pulled in over half a billion and won Best Picture. So what exactly should we have expected from American Sniper?
Not much. But even by the low low standards of this business, it still manages to sink to a new depth or two.
The message is clear: not only are films today based on “low low standards,” but so are the viewers. Hollywood is catering to the “American idiot” who, like Forrest Gump, isn’t interested in looking to closely at him or herself or history for fear of what might happen to him or her.
Reading this review against The Rolling Stone review for Seth Rogen’s film, The Interview, I was a bit surprised. If anything, I would think that this title and these words might be more apt for Rogen’s film. Although the other Rolling Stone review took some shots at Rogen and suggested that he has been doing adolescent films for much too long, it also suggested that, in the latest film, he is “at a crossroads” and is moving into the sphere of more serious films. These words, to be sure, suggest that the latest film is actually worthy of our interest. But, ultimately, I’d like to point out that the words applied to American Sniper can also be applied to the Rogen film. The Interview is “almost too stupid to dumb to criticize.” Like Taibbi I would argue that Hollywood has taken on “low low standards” in this film. However, I’m not so sure I would argue that people who watch it, like the film itself, are American idiots.
I’d like to discuss a few motifs in the film because I think it is “almost” too dumb to criticize. There are a few motifs and phrases in the film that suggest that Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen, and SONY Pictures believe, or rather assume, are most representative of how American youth – in general – represent…themselves. I think some of these assumptions are dumb while others are not.
One of the recurrent phrases in the film is the notion of being “honey dicked” or “honey potted” by someone. I started looking into the term “honeydicking” first. After looking the term up on urban dictionary, I was surprised to see that two definitions (and one t-shirt ad with the terms on it) came up which were put there after The Interview went public. Here’s the definition:
When a person is getting took. Somebody finding your ass out, figuring out what you like, telling you what you want to hear, to get what they want out of you. Honeydicking is refers to when a male does this act. Honeypotting refers to when a female does this act.
After looking up “honeypotting,” I found a similar definition but applied to women doing the act. This definition, in contrast, relates to pornography and goes back to 2010:
To good-naturedly insert one’s finger into a partner’s anus during doggystyle sex and subsequently lick it. Usually performed several times during the same sitting.
As one can see from the initial urbandictionary defintion, the term is reinterpreted in the film and made into yet another neologism which means that one is duped by a woman who acts sweet but only wants you to do something for her.
The act of deceiving someone through sex is found throughout the film. The question, however, is whether this is good or bad. Both Rogen and Franco’s characters struggle with the possibility, throughout the film, that they have been “honey potted” by men (such as Kim Jong-un) or women (the CIA operative).
While Franco and Rogen’s characters are both “honey potted,” only Franco’s character is “honey dicked.” Franco’s “honey dicking” by Kim Jong-un is the most interesting because we learn that the honey dicking has its greatest appeal on Franco he learns that he and Jong-un have similar problems: they both bond on the fact that they were hurt by their fathers who wanted them to be “men” and suppress their more “effeminate” emotions. In the process of speaking with each other, they become bros, party together, share secrets, and, as a result, Franco’s character, Skylark, decides that it would be wrong to kill Jong-un. He’s a bro, after all. He can’t be “honey dicking” him. Rogen’s character disagrees.
As a result, Skylark confronts the CIA agent and claims that she has been “honey potting” him. Rogen, meanwhile, learns that Jong-un’s secretary was not “honey potting” him. She is on their side.
Regardless, this motif, changes in the film when, toward the end, all of them realize that no one is deceiving anyone for any negative reason. This is just what bros do; however, Jung-un has an anger management problem (sound familiar, think of Adam Sandler). Skylark doesn’t. He has learned to control the anger his father may have bestowed on him and since Jong-un’s anger will result in killing millions of innocent people, Skylark decides to save the day and kill his bro.
The ambiguities in the film circle around the meaning of honey potting, honey dicking, and bros. We see all of this emblematized in the handshake. Can we trust the handshake or is it an act of deception? In the end, Rogen and Goldberg decided to have the handshake trump all other motifs. The bros, in the end, remain. However, the question we need to ask is what underlines this bro-hood and how does it evince a kind of stupidity.
At the outset of the film, Eminem is on screen confessing he is gay. The media control room goes crazy as if it’s a revelation that will trump all others in the modern era. Then we see Rob Lowe take off his wig to reveal his hidden (bald) identity. All of this is grist for the media mill and, as we see in the outset of the film, its not deemed serious. But, as we see throughout the film, nothing is really serious. Despite Skylark’s killing of his bro, Jong-un, the film suggests that if we can all be bros and if we were we would live in peace.
Moreover, it also suggests that the limit between bros and homosexuality – from being “honey potted” to being “honey dicked” (both, in the film, get positive valences) – is the limit of being modern, secular, and western. To be sure, these are the motifs behind the film and seem to spell out that, in addition to free speech, democracy, and communicating through Skype, this is the final frontier. To be sure, the pornographic motifs and the handshaking, taken together, suggest this.
Is this the case? Is the limit between the bro and homosexuality the greatest thing that Americans can turn to when they reflect on themselves? This is what Rogen, Goldberg, and SONY suggest. Does this motif speak to what Americans are in ways that are more truthful than, say, a film like American Sniper? I put the two up against each other not only because Seth Rogen in his latest news-grabbing Tweet suggested we think his work against Eastwood’s film; but also because the two films present two different views of what is important to Americans and who they look at themselves.
And this suggests a few questions: Does the bro displace the patriot? Would we all rather be “honey dipped” or “honey dicked” in the positive sense than be fighting in wars? Will be saved by a person who realizes that sometimes bros aren’t bros when they want to get angry and kill everyone? What is the frontier? How do we draw the line? And what is at stake?
Given my work on the schlemiel – in this blog, in essay, in book collections, etc – I would argue that Franco and Rogen are playing characters that are derivatives of the schlemiel. Ruth Wisse argues, at the beginning of her book, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero, that there were, in the early 20th and late 19th century, many jokes about schlemiels who go to war. In nearly all of the jokes, there is a failure to fight. But Wisse says something very interesting about this. It’s not that these characters are “anti-war” it’s that they simply don’t know how to do war.
Watching The Interview, one can see that this may apply. But, to be sure, Rogen – and not just him, but Judd Apatow – is replacing the word “schlemiel” with “bro.” The bro doesn’t know how to do war but acts “as if” he does. We see this with all the characters and even Jong-un. He acts as if he does. And when he tries, Skylark takes his chances and shoots a tank missile at him and succeeds. This is, of course, a drastic measure. We know this because, after this scene, we see Franco and Rogen’s characters have a bro reflection about what went wrong. The conversation gives their secret away: namely, that the latter day schlemiel not only doesn’t not want to or know how to engage in war but she or he would rather be hanging out with the bros or get honey potted….or honey dicked. (Or at least travel the limit between playing with it, wanting it, and actually getting it. After all, schlemielish sexuality is not laden with pathos or fate. As this and many other schlemiel films show us, such as Neighbors, Knocked Up, etc, sex just happens.)
Perhaps, even if both of these two films are “almost too dumb to criticize,” they have points that are worthy of discussion. This has a lot to do with how Americans may or may not want to think of who they are and what they do best. Between these two films, we see this kind of tension and can get a sense that, perhaps, the bro and the American warrior are, as the one Rolling Stone writer said of Rogen’s film, at a “crossroads.” Alternatively, we may just have two films that are, still, “almost too stupid to criticize” no matter how you look at it. The latter option would suggest that what film critics really want to see may not be shown to a large American audience as long as there is a market for bro-comedy or patriotic action films.