The Thing About ‘Sausage Party’
Here’s a stripped-down summary of Sausage Party, a movie that has made more than $80 million in three weeks: walking, talking, pot-smoking, sex-obsessed groceries believe that paradise awaits them in the homes of shoppers. They want nothing more than to be bought and taken to the “great beyond,” slipping the surly bonds of Earthly supermarkets. But when they discover the reality of their imminent demise by mastication (or worse), they revolt against the humans that they formerly revered as gods. Led by a sausage named Frank (Seth Rogen) and his bug-bunned girlfriend Brenda Bunson (Kristen Wiig), food wins its freedom in a glorious battle against people. The groceries celebrate with a pansexual and impressively creative orgy at the film’s conclusion, before learning an even stranger truth: they’re cartoons.
Sausage Party is as raunchy and ridiculous as advertised. Anyone planning to bring children should also plan to face questions like, “Daddy, why did Mr. Bagel have his tongue in Mr. Lavash’s butt?” I had a different question in mind as I walked out of the multiplex, trailing a gaggle of kids and their ashen-faced parents, who had clearly missed the memo.
What the fuck was that about?
I was surprised to discover that the prevailing answer is: not food. Skipping over the particular bizarreness brought to the table by sentient groceries, critics alight on observations about the film’s headier overtones. Those with praise laud what they consider to be its unexpected profundity, “[its] nuanced meditation on theology and faith,” “its shockingly sophisticated commentary on organized religion,” “its mature look at atheism,” “[its] existential and political dimension, crudely but effectively expressed,” and various other “provocations.” Sure, it’s a relief that Sausage Party beats the low expectations set by its ludicrous premise (a pleasant surprise in a summer of clunkers); and maybe this relief accounts for the echo chamber of metaphysical praise.
Alternatively, maybe I’m thinking too hard about a stupid cartoon — very possible, gentle reader.
Regardless, to probe this stupid cartoon’s meatier issues necessitates asking some unpopular questions: what if Sausage Party is really also about food? What might it reveal about our relationship to everyday things — fruit, veggies, processed meats, evil douches, and more?
Does a lavash even have a butt?
Before proposing answers, I want to advance some ideas about things. We tend to think about the “thingness” of objects only when they break. As Bill Brown — a scholar and father of what super-nerds know as “Thing Theory” — puts it, “We begin to confront the thingness of objects when they stop working for us.” Take the example of a hammer. When a hammer works properly, we don’t need to think of what it is, only what it does (it hammers). But when the hammer breaks, we have occasion to ask, “Whoa bro [deep inhale], what the heck is this thing? And what’s a hammer anyway?” This may seem like a stoner insight, but it clarifies that our understanding of an object’s value arises from its purpose.
Sausage Party proposes what happens when groceries break — when they stop “working for us” — leaving behind things dissociated from their traditional uses and meanings. Some things react poorly to brokenness. When the wounded and villainous Douche (Nick Kroll) contemplates his “bent-ass, broken-ass noz,” he blames Frank and cries, “I got no purpose! I’m nothing!” In the film’s adolescently phallus-obsessed world, if Douche can’t penetrate and “squirt,” then he can’t experience the bliss of being used. He takes to “juicing up,” sucking down juice boxes, energy drinks, and booze to replenish his strength and restore his rigidity, emulating the murderous role of human “monsters.” By the end, Douche somehow takes over the body of supermarket clerk Darren (Paul Rudd) by anally penetrating him (“a hole’s a hole,” Douche figures). He grabs hold of Frank and starts biting into him. “I sucked a juicy box’s dick, and I’m shoved up a guy’s asshole, and this is the weirdest thing that I’ve done so far bro.”
Ultimately, Douche is the only one in Sausage Party’s universe so bothered by who-puts-what-in-where questions (see below for a discussion of the aforementioned orgy). Instead, what makes his actions “weird” is that he’s the only thing that continuously desires to be used by humans.
In this way, Sausage Party inverts a myth at the heart of franchises like Toy Story and Lego Movie, which use anthropomorphized toys to suggest that objects find fulfillment in being used. This myth, handy for teaching cheerful kids how to grow into cheerful adult shoppers, transforms consumption into a virtuous act that helps objects achieve their life’s purpose. It convinces us to invest in things with aspirations and emotions and to ignore the wellbeing, happiness, and purpose of the people who produced them. Sausage Party literally calls “bullshit” on this myth, comically revealing what “being used” means for groceries. The carnage of a kitchen scene in the erstwhile great beyond — an Italian tomato screaming, baby carrots devoured, nachos vaporized — disabuses Frank’s horrified pals of this organizing myth. But it takes hallucinatory bath salts for the first cheerful adult shopper (James Franco) to see his food come to life: “The bath salts are showing me the real world. It’s fucking lifted the veil of non-reality.” He thinks he’s tweaking and cowers in fear. Similarly, when the groceries poison the supermarket with bath salts, shoppers react by trying to kill the suddenly terrifying food items. When things come to life they make us consider that consumption itself constitutes an evil, murderous act. Anytime this reality — that the consumption of things veils a monstrous system of pain, horror, and exploited labor — bubbles to the surface, the system of production and consumption must squash it.
Sausage Party’s cartoonish violence gives us a momentary glimpse of the notion that everyday consumption of things might be “fucked up, bro.” But it doesn’t last.
After their victory, the characters commence their orgiastic celebrations, which embody a liberated sexuality that a homophobic character like Douche would abhor. This is not to say that the sex in Sausage Party is wholly unconventional. Frank and Brenda’s obvious coital geometry is the Chekov’s gun from the film’s opening frame, and we experience a conflicted sensation of narrative satisfaction and squeamishness when they finally get down. Panning out from their embrace, we find several groceries have been watching and sharing our squeamishness. Sammy Bagel Jr. (Edward Norton) voices discomfort to his former nemesis Kareem Abdul Lavash (David Krumholtz). “I’m very conflicted about how I’m supposed to feel watching this,” Bagel says in his Woody Allen twang. Lavash’s response lights the fuse on the rest of the sequence. “Then don’t just watch,” he says, leaning in seductively. Moments later, we find everyone in flagrante delicto with everyone else to the soundtrack of — appropriately — “It’s Your Thing.”
All we can do (thankfully) is watch. And though we may feel conflicted too, there’s something uncannily familiar about the buffet of screwing things — literal food porn — that unfurls before us. After all, we know what it means to stare at socially mediated images of sexy food, viewing and liking images of things that have no culinary use to us: sweaty pairs of sunny-side up eggs, glistening peaches, French fries with white truffle aioli sauce, etc. To put it as dryly as possible, Sausage Party makes awkwardly visual our otherwise repressed libidinal investment in images of food. We charge these things with symbolism. In social media’s economy, we value food as much for its nutritional value as for its ability to communicate ethics, wealth, status, and social prowess. The subversive potential of the orgy scene does not arise just from its sexual explicitness (though, sheesh), but also from its ability to reveal coded desires that hide in plain sight.
It would have been better if the movie ended there, with satiation assured and with the characters grounded in a material world, doing their thing and celebrating their thingness.
But in the final scene, Gum (Scott Underwood) and Firewater (Bill Hader) make a startling revelation: “Now that you have shattered one truth, it is time for you to learn that we are not real.” Gum describes an “important metaphysical breakthrough,” produced when the characters are “tripping balls.” To boot, “The world is a fucking illusion, bro,” and somewhere in another dimension reside puppet masters (Rogen, et. al.) who call the shots. This ending reifies traditional metaphysical distinctions between a material world of slavery and another “great beyond” where truth reigns. Gum builds a “stargate” that will take the characters to this other dimension — that is, to our own world — but we all know that what they’ll find here ain’t any better. Sausage Party reveals that we have a hard time leaving things alone, and that we’re always ready to impress upon them our self-delusions, desires, and ideologies, if only to avoid reckoning with the idea that we too are but fleshy things made of other things we consume. To dwell on their thingness might be to admit our own.
Seriously. Don’t take the kids.
A-J Aronstein splits his time between Chicago and New York. His most recent work appeared in The New Ohio Review and he has written online for publications that include the Paris Review and Tin House. He is working on his first book.