The Simpsons Movie comes out tonight at midnight, and longtime fans of the TV show are responding in very different ways. Some are overcome with excitement for a big-screen version of the show they've loved so long. And some are huddled in fear that the show they once loved will cap off its recent downhill slide with an embarrassing piece of B-movie junk. Ben Wasserstein and Dan Kois fight it out, IM style.
Kois: Ben, I am bitterly preparing myself for The Simpsons Movie to be terrible.
Kois: Can you convince me otherwise?
Wasserstein: Dan, I am happily preparing myself for it to be awesome.
Wasserstein: I think that I can.
Kois: (Good, good, not stilted at all so far.)
Wasserstein: The trailers and clips we've seen so far have been (I think) terrific.
Wasserstein: That pseudo-Pixar CGI bunny one? Fantastic.
Kois: Yeah, and the actual scene from the movie, with Homer being smashed by a wrecking ball? Not so much.
Kois: It smacks of late-season desperation to me.
Wasserstein: I actually liked the wrecking ball bit — if only because he gets poked in the butt by a billboard for "The Zesty Fork" restaurant
Wasserstein: But most importantly, I think it will be a good Simpsons movie because it will be a real movie.
Wasserstein: The basic premise of my New York piece about the eighth-season DVD, and the show's "golden era," was that the show was at its best when it had real emotions attached to it, combined with the faster pace and more-hilarious gags that came in around season three.
Wasserstein: From what I've read about the movie, the writers were obsessed about creating an emotional arc: Homer starts in one place, and ends in another.
Wasserstein: That's vintage Simpsons, and vintage James L. Brooks.
Wasserstein: And then, of course, there's the pleasure of seeing our favorite Springfieldians on the big screen…
Kois: Which should not be discounted.
Kois: And I will not discount it.
Wasserstein: …and seeing them as part of a communal experience — won't it be great to be with a theater-ful of Simpsons fans?
Kois: Although I'm not positive that paying $11 for the pleasure of seeing an even bigger Chief Wiggum is such a selling point
Wasserstein: Hey, speak for yourself.
Kois: Well, I'll address your points one by one.
Kois: And destroy them with ease.
Kois: Starting from the end.
Wasserstein: As Mr. Burns would say, I'll just try to keep my sides from splitting.
Kois: The participation of James Brooks is, no doubt, a positive move for the film.
Kois: I worry, though, that the participation of Matt Groening is not.
Kois: It has always seemed to me that the show succeeded in its finest years in spite of Groening, rather than because of him.
Kois: His comedic voice helped the show find its own voice in its early seasons.
Kois: But very quickly, it was Sam Simon, Brad Bird, and other writers and show-runners who really made the show as great as it was.
Kois: Simon even feuded with Groening and eventually left.
Wasserstein: Did you see Simon on 60 Minutes? It sounded like he feuded with everyone.
Wasserstein: I think it's tough to conclude that Groening's been overinvolved with the movie, though.
Wasserstein: Sure, he's been doing PR.
Wasserstein: But it's Al Jean and Mike Scully who have really run things, it sounds like.
Kois: You also say that the movie will have a real emotional arc.
Kois: Is that really possible with (I count) eleven credited screenwriters?
Kois: Is a writer's-room mentality the best way to create an emotionally rich movie script?
Wasserstein: Practically every great TV show, comedy or drama, has been written in a room.
Kois: But what's the last great movie you saw that was written by committee?
Wasserstein: It's just WGA regulations that keep the writing credit of every Simpsons or (getting back to James Brooks) Mary Tyler Moore from having eleven writing credits too.
Kois: That's fine when you're packing an A plot and a B plot with as many gags as possible in 22 minutes.
Kois: But to create the emotional arc you're hoping for — in a two-hour movie — seems to me to require a more singular vision.
Kois: It's not impossible.
Kois: It's been done (by Pixar, among others).
Kois: But it's rare enough that my default position on a movie with eleven writers is one of skepticism.
Wasserstein: Funny you mentioned Pixar!
Wasserstein: Another selling point of the movie for me is that director David Silverman returned to the Simpsons from Pixar to make this film.
Kois: It is true that there he directed a classic, Monsters Inc.
Kois: (Nine credited writers.)
Wasserstein: And your God Joss Whedon was one of many contributors to Toy Story...
Kois: And he was also one of many, many contributors to Alien 3.
Kois: Which benefited so from the teamwork.
Kois: (Though that's a somewhat specious comparison on my part, because there is certainly a difference between ten different screenwriters taking individual cracks at Alien 3 and ten guys in a room writing the Simpsons movie together.)
Wasserstein: The writer's room has served the Simpsons incredibly well for almost twenty years.
Wasserstein: I can't imagine them making a movie any other way.
Kois: I suspect the movie will be as good as the best episode in season twelve.
Kois: Which still makes it better than some other movies, but it makes it fall far short of what a Simpsons movie should be.
Kois: What makes you so sure this movie will be as good as old episodes and not as bad as current ones?
Wasserstein: There are definitely some structural problems: A lot of great jokes have already been done.
Wasserstein: It'll be tough for the movie to draw Homer back from the Stoopid Homer he currently is.
Wasserstein: But I'm expecting it to be as good as a very, very strong late-season episode.
Kois: So actually, basically, we agree.
Kois: It's just that my movie is half-empty, and yours is half-full.
Wasserstein: I'm not one of those people who thinks that nothing in the past ten years has been great.
Kois: My history of watching the Simpsons since the turn of the century has mostly been one of disappointment.
Wasserstein: Then I understand your skepticism toward the movie.
Kois: It's not good enough to me that the show's better than Family Guy — I want it to be the great show it was.
Kois: And it's not good enough to me that the movie be better than, I dunno, Transformers.
Wasserstein: Oh, Lord, no, me neither.
Kois: I want it to be the great movie it could be.
Wasserstein: I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.
Kois: God, I hope so.