I just saw the super-ultra-atmosphere-piercing smash hit musical “The Book of Mormon” and had two conflicting feelings about it. Yes, it’s entertaining, clever, and funny as hell, but also, has anyone noticed, that much like some of the lazier “South Park” episodes, its overarching conclusions are pretty vapid?
There’s no denying that Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the duo behind “South Park” and “Team America”) are insanely talented comedians and writers. I still think “South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut” remains their crowning achievement—one of the finest animated films and/or musicals ever. Over the years, as “South Park” has ebbed and flowed in its hit-or-miss reflections on American culture, I’ve maintained a consistent attachment to their brand of humor, and “The Book of Mormon” is that mojo on steroids.
Only Parker and Stone could get away with musical numbers that include the refrain “F*** You, God” or lyrics that describe raping babies to cure AIDS and have it all come off as completely endearing. Their virtuoso talents are often breathtaking, and if you’re even remotely interested in talking about the best in American comedy, you have to watch how they do what they do.
However, I also walked out of “The Book of Mormon” reminded that Parker and Stone are not particularly sophisticated thinkers and that their acid lampooning of any given subject can sometimes go off the rails when they make, well, I’ll say it: a really stupid point. This was never on better display than 2004’s “Team America: World Police,” which disguised itself as a satire of jingoism (think the song “America, F*** Yeah!”) until it ultimately revealed itself as a full-throated defense of militarism, the Iraq war, and the senseless, counterproductive imperial bloodshed of the Bush years.
For those who haven’t seen or don’t recall the movie, this all comes out in the final speech in which a character explains that “dicks f*** pussies, but they also f*** assholes.” It was an argument no less unthinking and cowardly than those proffered by the spoiled brat College Republicans cheerleading the Iraq invasion while never for a moment fearing they’d actually have to go fight in it.
Similarly, “The Book of Mormon” viciously sends up the silliness of Mormon doctrine and critiques religion as a bunch of nonsense. Ultimately, however, Parker and Stone play it safe by making the very familiar, very pedestrian, very typical garbled point that faith—no matter what that faith is—can be powerful and healing and bestow upon its followers great happiness.
It’s the same lazy argument offered by so much pop culture, including the Oscar-winning “Life of Pi.”
“We don’t know what’s true and what’s not,” the argument goes, “So as long as it’s a good story, why not just believe it and have everyone be happy because of it?”
Thus “The Book of Mormon” ends with its missionary protagonists--who’ve questioned their faith and then gone off the reservation by inventing a bunch of (extremely funny) addendums to the Mormon faith--scaring off the African warlord antagonist with their nonsense and saving a Ugandan village.
In other words, “Use a bunch of First World myths such as Joseph Smith and his golden tablets to repel those really stupid Third World myths like female circumcision.”
This totally glosses over the central critique many of us have of religion: that one man’s faith, one man’s “harmless story” to help him live a better, more moral life, is another man’s cutting off his daughter’s clit. And the faithful have a lot of trouble understanding this critique because it challenges the notion that there’s any such thing as a “safe, harmless story.” I found it particularly interesting that female circumcision factored in as such a major plot point because anybody with the ability to read cannot escape the conclusion that all the major religions—Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and all their various sects—arrive at the same nexus of extreme misogyny and homophobia when their most ardent followers are allowed free reign.
Any ethos that rejects empiricism and scientific knowledge, that seeks to impose its arbitrary values on non-believers or rewrite history to suit its myths is by definition dangerous in that the only way it can survive and prosper is by denying truth and attacking those who point out its flaws.
There was nothing more telling to me than the playbill, which included three full-page ads for the Mormon Church. Smiling biracial models probably fresh off duty for a teeth-whitening campaign grinned above quotes like, “You’ve Seen The Play… Now Read The Book.” Or “The Book Is Always Better.”
This is not to say Parker and Stone’s “The Book of Mormon” had to be some broadside firebomb against Mormonism. Mormonism gets a bad rap since the only thing that makes it any more ridiculous than its competitors is that its foundational stories supposedly occurred only in the recent, documentable past.
(Also, “Book of Mormon” totally leaves out that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young were child rapists who probably invented the whole thing so they could keep children in sex-slave harems as their “wives.” Read Jon Krakauer’s “Under the Banner of Heaven” for a gripping synopsis.)
So it’s not that I didn’t laugh my ass off at “The Book of Mormon” or that I’ll certainly be in line for whatever projects Stone and Parker come up with in the future. I just think that while the comedy might be pitch-perfect, the messaging falls into a familiar dopey trap.