“America: The Motion Picture” gives George Washington chainsaw arms. As far as historical rewrites go, that’s not nothing. If the cherry tree story was always fiction — not to mention scores of other anecdotes about historical figures that have morphed their way into conventional understanding about the Great Men of History — then why not tell a nonsensical version of 1776 that involves mechanized weapon limbs?
That’s about as close to making a salient point as this movie gets. For those watching who consider anything other than reverence of the Founders to be insufficient, this will not be their cup of Boston Lager. For others looking for an insightful takedown of the mythologizing of American history, there’s not much for them to find, either. “America: The Motion Picture” is a goofy mishmash of riffs on prominent historical figures, often only slightly more ambitious than that commercial where ol’ GW drives a Dodge Challenger with a Hemi engine. Most of the time, it’s knowingly stupid, which makes watching it 90 minutes of occasional fun and frequent indifference.
The opening third of “America: The Motion Picture” — written by “Wonder Woman 1984” scribe and “Jean-Claude Van Johnson” creator Dave Callaham — channels the manic energy of a 12-year-old playing with a bunch of mismatched action figures and trying to create a storyline on the fly that somehow involves all of them. George Washington (Channing Tatum) and Abraham Lincoln (Will Forte) are best friends, and it’s the murder of the latter (committed by someone other than who you’re expecting) that’s as much an inciting incident for this version of the American Revolution as any British colonial tax policy. Most of the people in the famed Trumbull painting have been offed by a secret bomb plot carried out by Benedict Arnold (Andy Samberg), so Washington is forced to look elsewhere to assemble his avengers.
Armed with the idea of following through on the Declaration of Independence (which sort of happened, but sort of didn’t in this timeline), Washington summons a ragtag team of notable names from multiple centuries of American history, mostly introduced in a parade of lazy “what if x, but y” setups. Samuel Adams (Jason Mantzoukas) is a fratty Gaston knockoff, Paul Revere (Bobby Moynihan) gets recruited at a neon-lit, “2 Fast 2 Furious”-style thoroughbred race, and the Tony Stark/Salem Witch hybrid they stumble upon turns out to be Thomas Edison (Olivia Munn). It’s a not-as-imaginative “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” meets a not-as-funny “Clone High” (the latter made all the more confusing and disappointing, given that Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are on board as producers).
The jokes in “America: The Motion Picture” come in various forms. Sometimes, it means having the Washington team and Arnold yell at each other like they’re six drinks deep on spring break in Cabo (it gets old quick) or be baffled by references to inventions that theoretically haven’t been invented yet (effective, if you find Mantzoukas’ Indignant Voice hilarious) or alternate explanations for American iconography (did you happen to know that the word “Address” has two different meanings or that there’s a crack in the Liberty Bell?) or the kind of long-road-to-a-payoff gags that somehow work way better than they should (a flashback late in the movie has Tatum expertly sliding in a punchline too precious to spoil here).
The more that “America: The Motion Picture” relies on straight parody, the sparser those laughs feel. Simon Pegg makes an absolute meal out of his time as King James, but by the time it’s clear that he’s little more than the Emperor to Arnold’s Vader, the choice is enough to make you wonder what the point of this all is. There’s a fife-and-drum remix of a classic movie theme that’s a fun achievement for composer Mark Mothersbaugh and his Mutato Muzika, but the way it’s used feels like something ripped from a “Shrek” movie. It’s not that Munn’s Edison or Raoul Max Trujillo’s Geronimo or Killer Mike’s Blacksmith are radical reinventions of this movie’s formula, but when they’re in the spotlight, it at least forces “America: The Motion Picture” to try to make something new instead of smushing together old ideas.
Yet, when the rest of the movie tends to meander, as is standard with other productions from Floyd County (including “Archer” and last year’s fantastic “Dicktown”), it comes across when the cast seems to be really enjoying themselves. Even Judy Greer, who gets saddled with a Martha Washington who is as fleeting and tangential to the plot of this movie as anything else is, finds something to pick out from all the absurdity. Tatum shores up his bona fides as a comedy leading man, while Moynihan seems to relish being the only one expected to zig while everyone else zags. And this is as close to uncut, untethered Mantzoukas as any of his voice roles have ever been.
Washington’s crew and the Redcoat forces careen toward a final showdown, one that ends up being a “Ready Player One”-esque climactic battle royale. (Credit where it’s due: “America: The Motion Picture” is a third-order mashup of mashup mashups.) It’s where director Matt Thompson really gets to shine, filling the frame with as much unhinged chaos as the screen can handle. If the movie’s overall project is stacking things upon things, seeing all the ingredients of the pop culture casserole slice each other’s heads off is entertaining in its own specific way.
But by then, it’s all a little too late. The close of “America: The Motion Picture” does embrace some of the more fraught parts of American history that characters have been nodding and winking at for most of its runtime. Arguably, the movie’s best joke might be the very last one, the one that doesn’t come until after the end credits crawl starts up. Whether people will want to stick around through the early mayhem is their free, democratic choice.
“America: The Motion Picture” is now available to stream on Netflix.