“Pack your bags, we’re going to South America!” I hadn’t even gotten through half of the trailer for Amy Schumer’s upcoming mother-daughter comedy before I realized where that plot line was going. The film, after all, is titled Snatched. Sure enough, after Emily (Schumer) convinces her mother (played by Goldie Hawn) to go on a trip down south with her, the two are kidnapped when they so little as dare venture outside their expensive-looking beach resort in Salinas, Ecuador. What follows, the trailer promises us, is a rollicking comedy adventure flick that’ll find mother and daughter bonding as they attempt to escape the tropical hellhole that they find themselves in and flee from their stereotypically-characterized Latin American captors.
Even as I begrudgingly conceded that Schumer and Hawn have pretty great chemistry, I kept being annoyed at seeing yet another American film use the perceived danger of Latin America as a backdrop for comedic hijinks. Following in the heels of Ricky Gervais’ Special Correspondents and the Kevin James starrer True Memoirs of an International Assassin — Snatched points to the continued trend of pitting South America as a violent, dangerous region. It’d be a different story if these films took the time to anchor their humor in the specificity of their locales. But more often than not, they use Latin American countries interchangeably, adding to the notion that to make a distinction between, say, Colombia and Ecuador is laughable and unnecessary. Snatched, for example, shot in Hawaii, a move that surely depended on tax breaks and financial concerns but which points to the way the film is only interested in what “South America” represents as an idea, less so as a real-life place. These representations are nothing new. If anything, they have a long and storied history. Think of the tango-filled images of Brazil in Flying Down to Rio (1933), the Mexican-set vision of Bolivia in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), the Caribbean-styled Bogotá of Mr. & Mrs. Smith.
In these films’ imaginations, “South America” stands in as a foreign-looking world that’s riddled with geopolitical and military problems, a closer version, if you will, of the Middle East—another region whose cultural representations via Hollywood leave much to be desired. That’s how a project like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2002 film Collateral Damage can originally be set in Libya as a way to discuss American intervention in the Middle East only for the filmmakers to decide it would be edgier to use Colombia instead. Lest you think that doesn’t happen often, know that Gervais’ Special Correspondents is a remake of a French comedy about two reporters who, unable to make it to Iraq begin to file fake news stories about the war there from the comfort of Paris. Gervais has moved the film’s setting to New York and swapped in Ecuador for Iraq, leaving the core of the story intact. In the film, radio reporters Frank and Ian (Eric Bana and Gervais) begin creating increasingly wilder and wilder war reports from a violent-stricken Quito which is on the verge of a coup. To up their profile they even fake their own kidnapping (by the “Ecuadorian Liberation Front”) which make them celebrities in their own right.
I kept being annoyed at seeing yet another American film use the perceived danger of Latin America as a backdrop for comedic hijinks.
The film, of course, is a satire about how South America is conjured up by the American media. As Frank and Ian are set to record their first report from “war-torn” Quito, Ian sets up a soundscape that’s supposed to mimic what they’d have encountered on the ground. This includes parrots, monkeys, and gunfire sounds. They help set the scene for Frank, who is a consummate storyteller and who can come up with a persuasive story no matter how flimsy the details. Frank’s fake news dispatches are cut whole cloth from the preconceptions that regular Americans have of the continent, where every city is a tropical jungle, every town is a dust-ridden village cut off from the world, and drug trafficking is rampant anywhere to go.
Part of the joke is these third-rate New York City reporters trying to file news stories from a country they’ve never even been to. Yet once the film actually arrives in Ecuador, the image matches almost perfectly with what they’d first reported. In between tropical jungle fronds they find themselves at a desolate bar in the middle of nowhere. There, a beautiful woman offers them cocaine and a grimy man with a gun kidnaps them for real. One gets the sense that Gervais and his team have Colombia in the ’80s in mind, not current-day Ecuador, though clearly the distinction makes no difference to them.
One gets the sense that Gervais and his team have Colombia in the ’80s in mind, not current-day Ecuador, though clearly the distinction makes no difference to them.
Even when a film seems slightly more attuned to the local flavor of its setting, the over the top caricatures of the people and country alike are enough to make you cringe. In the action-comedy True Memoirs of an International Assassin, Kevin James is a fiction writer who sees his novel, about a deadly assassin, marketed as a memoir only to have bickering factions in Venezuela kidnap him to order a hit on each other. Set in, as its titles suggest, “the most dangerous city in the world,” Caracas, True Memoirs aims to be James’s attempt at a James Bond-like flick. As such, it paints a picture of Venezuela as a Banana Republic, with a bumbling dictator who’s too cozy with the CIA, police precincts with no working computers that are filled with corruption, and a speedo-wearing Russian drug lord who loves Zima and listens to Taylor Swift. It’s all so hilariously cartoonish that to be offended suggests a lack of sense of humor.
Except humor is rooted in deeply held cultural attitudes, ones that both implicitly and explicitly help construct our vision of the world around us. That both Special Correspondents and True Memoirs are narratives driven by middle-aged schlubby white dudes fantasizing about being the heroes of a cheaply-thought out ’80s action flick is no mere coincidence. It just adds to the sense of cluelessness of these representations. You probably don’t need to even watch these films to know that in the end, these lying but earnest men wind up on top, having escaped unscathed the South American urban jungle. The resulting message is always the same: tropical, dirt-poor, violent-ridden, politically unstable countries south of the border are dangerous. Imagine that being the funniest backdrop you could come up with to pitch your comedy to Hollywood producers. It’s enough to make one reel with righteous anger. It’s yet another example of the insidious ways in which American filmmakers showcase their own myopic vision of South America. We’d laugh it off as mere comedy were it not also at the heart of the Americanist sentiment that seeks to vilify those outside U.S. borders. For underneath all these types of stories is the unwavering yet guiding principle that the United States is, if nothing else, safer, more politically stable, and more economically prosperous than those countries down south. That’s how American exceptionalism is put on screen, one laughably bad comedy at a time.