Where, then, do we turn to fight the bearded enemies of the free play of meaning that is so central to our Western democratic ideal of truth, justice and the American way? We turn, of course, to the creators of South Park, Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and their cadre of high-powered world police, Team America.
This is the movie that Thunderbirds should have been: a feature-length, marionette-only extravaganza with lots of puppet violence and government-ordered gay sex. Indeed, Parker and Stone capture the essence of the old Thunderbirds Are Go! TV series far better than this summer's lukewarm live-action version ever could.
Plus, Team America is intermittently hilarious. The most intermittently hilarious movie of the year! If you see only one intermittently hilarious movie this year, see Team America!
Like Parker and Stone's last film, South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, the opening segment of Team America is probably its funniest part. However, unlike South Park: B, L and U, Team America remains entertaining all the way through. There's just something about naked puppets bumping together in a mime of what the Bush administration calls "anal lovemaking" that automatically creates the kind of dramatic interest needed to sustain a politically incorrect, racist, below-the-belt action comedy.
The ridiculous, unbelievable, in-no-way-grounded-in-reality premise of Team America is that the United States has given itself the task of policing the world, and that it does so with maximum violence, incompetence and collateral damage. Crazy!
The vanguard of America's noble effort is Team America, a group of five super-marionettes who utter lines that are as wooden as their bodies. As they destroy national monuments in their effort to stop a group of Islamic terrorists, they also face the prospect of bringing a new hero into the group when menacing Mujahidin mercilessly murder one of their members.
Thus, their leader, the in-no-way gay Spotswood, must find a replacement, and he turns, of course, to America's greatest resource: attractive young actors. Spotswood finds Gary, the lead in the Broadway play Lease, and brings him into Team America, where his acting powers can be used not only to entertain, but to save lives.
However, shockingly, some of America's actors are not all pureness and patriotism! Indeed, the evil Film Actors Guild, led by Alec Baldwin, is plotting with mad dictator Kim Jong Il to bring peace and violence to the world!
Only Team America can stop Tim Robbins, Janeane Garofalo and a horde of swarthy terrorists from hating our freedoms, and so they're off on another adventure, flying their super-powered machines from their secret headquarters inside Mount Rushmore to the dreaded Durkadurkastan, home of evil and the evil-doers who do it.
Parker and Stone take stabs at pretty much everyone, sending up not only America's hubris and stupidity, but also the hubris and stupidity of those who oppose America's hubris and stupidity.
They also don't blanche at the prospect of using simple-minded stereotypes, which is either incredibly offensive or incredibly funny, or both, depending on how you respond to a Kim Jong Il marionette singing "I'm So Ronery!"
The good news is that the songs in Team America are generally better than those in South Park. There might not be anything quite as good as "Uncle-F***er" here, but there are no weak songs, either, and the musical numbers never become tiresome.
In fact, some of the best moments include the songs "Pearl Harbor Sucked and I Miss You," in which the loss of love is compared to the tragedy of the Michael Bay movie epic, and "Freedom Cost a Dollar Five," a spot-on send-up of Toby Keith's jingoism which somehow makes fun and celebrates at the same time.
This is probably what makes Team America work so well: Parker and Stone can hate what they love, and ridicule a position that they see as not without merit. It's simple-mindedness that gets attacked here, and it gets attacked with a wry, ironic simple-mindedness. Parker and Stone are so slippery and yet direct that the just-dead Derrida would no doubt find some joy in their work, and Superman would want to be their champion, even as Parker and Stone tossed rotten eggs at him.
Strangely, in spite of their take-no-prisoners approach, Parker and Stone leave G.W. Bush, John Kerry and Osama bin Laden completely out of their puppet mix. I guess some targets are just too easy to hit.
Still, with Arab terrorists enacting the bar scene from Star Wars, a government agent who says "I'm not from Hollywood; I'm not gonna f**k you in the mouth," and Kim Jong Il dancing in front of his collection of Hummel figurines, it's not like the cheap shots are avoided.
But they're mostly good, cheap shots, and the film is mostly funny. Plus, the plot moves along in a zippy way that keeps attention even when the jokes lag a bit, as they do in the middle of the film. The puppets, too, are marvels of modern science, evincing a greater range of emotions than Clint Eastwood, John Kerry and Kevin Costner combined. And the sets are like a childhood dream of what the GI Joe Action Village should have looked like.
In the end, the movie succeeds on its own terms, as juvenile as those may be. In fact, Team America is in many ways comparable to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that inspired it, which is to say that it works both as tragedy and as comedy.