The Nut Job
Director: Peter Lepeniotis
Starring (Voices): Will Arnett, Brendon Fraser, Liam Neeson, Katherine Heigl
I want to like every movie I see. I find no point in spending money only to amplify every fault and critique in a quest to ruin my own day. This is especially true of kids’ movies, which I don’t expect too much from. That said, The Nut Job offers a confusing narrative that, in the words of my seven year old son, “wasn’t very funny.”
The film tells the story of Surly Squirrel (Will Arnett) who, as you might guess by his name, is a bit surly. He is selfish and uncooperative with the other animals in the park led by a Raccoon (Liam Neeson). Very early on this selfishness leads to his being banished from the park after his struggle to capture a nut cart for himself leads to the community’s food for winter being destroyed.
Now, this was a fine set up for the film if not a bit cliché. Selfishness leads to disaster and isolation. We might expect then that Surly will learn the importance of community, somehow redeeming himself through the titular “nut job.” And this happens, but the twists and turns along the way are difficult to follow.
In truth I should have known there’d be trouble. Andi Squirrel (Katherine Heigl) objects but eventually acquiesces to Surly’s banishment on the grounds that he hasn’t had a fair trial. I wondered what the point of this bit was. Clearly Surly had behaved poorly (though it wasn’t clear the destruction of food was his fault), but a trial? What’s the rule of law have to do with the story? Why make a point about treating the transgressor fairly? Clearly, Surly’s shortcomings are juxtaposed to shortcomings within the community of the park.
So Surly now heads to the city where he discovers a nut store owned by would be bank robbers (a sub plot that seems more like filler than an essential part of the plot). Andi and the not quite right Greyson Squirrel (Brendan Fraser) follow close behind looking for a way to replenish the lost food. Andi enters a deal with Surly where they will work together to steal the nuts with Surly taking half and the park getting the other half.
Only now it is revealed that Raccoon is not all he seems. First he plans on betraying Surly and taking all of the nuts for the park, and later he decides to try to sabotage the mission all together. When I say I didn’t see that coming, that’s not praise. The first move kind of makes sense, but the second comes out of nowhere. Some attempt is made to cast Raccoon as controlling the animals by controlling their food supply, but since he’s already despotically in charge with no remote threat to his power, it’s not at all clear why he suddenly wants the mission to fail. There’s no back story, no reason why having no food helps him. Taking all of the food makes sense, destroying it was step beyond.
So here’s what I think happened. With Raccoon intent on stealing Surly’s share of the nut job, Surly, even in his selfishness becomes sympathetic. Surly’s selfishness after all is what makes it possible for the animals to eat. Raccoon, on the other hand, as the communal leader, does nothing but robs Surly of what is rightfully his. In other words, this looks to be shaping up as a nice little right wing, objectivist narrative about the evils of government and collectivism and the virtue of selfishness. The communal authority will rob the hard-working Surly of the fruit of his labor for the greater good. Really though, it was only Surly’s selfishness that made attaining the food possible. But of course, only a nut job would think teaching kids to be selfish is a good thing.
So someone changed it, made Raccoon a threat to the community by having him turn on the very community he controls and inexplicably threaten to destroy the food. This allows Surly to be cast as a communal hero when he sacrifices himself for the sake of the success of the nut job and therefore the community. In the end he learns the value of sharing and working together.
But then, further confusing things, he doesn’t end up back in the community, but tells Andi that the animals need to believe that the team succeeded. He will remain an outsider working hard to gather food for the community, but will do so without recognition. There is even a hint that the animals need to continue to hate him for his selfishness in order to maintain social cohesion, a proposition not too different from the work of René Girard and Richard Kearney who argue that founding myths of communities are always built around ostracizing others as scapegoats.
So we end with neither a coercive power forcing social cohesion nor the radical individual out for his own selfish ends. Finally we settle on something like anarcho-syndicalism, I guess, a community of individuals seeking mutual benefit through cooperation absent a coercive power? I was very confused as to what my stance toward the community should be.
The confusion of the message regarding individuals and communities is perhaps only something a social philosopher would worry about, but I need these things to make cohesive sense even if you don’t. More basically, let me add that in addition to a haphazard narrative, it’s just not that funny. There are some decent jokes about flatulent gophers, and a kind of running gag about a Squirrel who suffers a concussion in the beginning of the film but never quite recovers (think about this guy showing up for two hours, and yes it is worrisome), but all in all it falls a bit flat. As my son said, “I expected to laugh more.”
If you’re looking for a way to spend a cold afternoon with your family there are worse options, but it could have been much better. If you go see it, be sure to stick around for the credits in which an animated Psy dances Gangnam style with the characters from the film. It is lively and entertaining and one of the best parts of the film. That’s right; the credits are one of the best parts of the film. Does anything else need saying after that?