Michael Moore, the most controversial documentary filmmaker since Leni Riefenstahl, is back with a new film, Capitalism: A Love Story. Moore is the man people love or hate (or love to hate). There is no in between. Don't be fooled by the tongue in cheek title, this is not a romance unless you happen to believe in the message that Moore espouses. And if you do, it's a dark, dark romance. Capitalism: A Love Story is a tale of woe, greed, financial missteps, deception, poverty, hypocrisy, the corruption of the American government--just the usual sort of topics that keep his fans happy and his enemies fuming.
With heightened expectations and the high profile nature of a new Moore film, Capitalism: A Love Story is his most uneven and least rewarding film since The Big One in 1997. Moore's previous three documentaries, Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Sicko, were focused, well thought out, flame throwers that were incredibly entertaining while fusing outrage and laughter.
Moore unleashed his leftist ideas on topics such as America's gun culture, the disastrous presidential legacy of George W. Bush and the diseased health care industry. These were three important films that took documentaries to a place in the mainstream they'd never been before. The phrases "blockbuster" and "documentary" were never uttered by anyone until Moore came along. Never. Capitalism: A Love Story, while delivering some trademark moments, is simply not as good as Moore's previous group of films and is a surprisingly subdued movie from someone with Moore's track record.
Right off the bat we get the gist of the film's message: the United States, much like the last days of the Roman Empire, is in the midst of its downfall. We see house foreclosures in rural North Carolina, urban Detroit and small town Peoria, Illinois. This in universal suffering. It's hard not to be moved by the plight of these people. Moore's outlook is as gloomy as it gets. We are in the last days and the malady is from top (corrupt politicians, war, white collar criminals) to bottom (the sewer of mass pop culture littered with reality shows, Nascar). The cause of the downfall is the capitalist system that we are told by the mass media, by the government, by patriotic neighbors and by seemingly everyone you see on TV or hear on the radio that this is what makes us unique in the world and is the pillar of our democracy. I will hazard a guess that this view point is not one shared by the majority of Oklahomans. Moore questions all of our shared preconceptions about capitalism, democracy and the direction our nation is taking. This is all in the first four minutes and pretty much continues for nearly two hours in varying degrees of effectiveness.
Subject wise, this is Moore's most difficult film in trying to find a way to deliver a cohesive message. Dissecting capitalism is a complex, broad subject field to work in.
There are many layers to it that Moore attempts to cover which results in mixed results. The film bounces from subjects like the housing crisis, Ronald Reagan's intertwining of business and government in the early 1980s, the destruction of unions, multiple examples of the detrimental nature of greed, more on the housing crisis and the role banks had, lots of references to Flint, Michigan (the hometown Moore can not resist putting in his films), grossly underpaid pilots, immoral insurance claims, politicians, corporations, financial deregulation, the seven hundred billion dollar buyout for the banks, the manipulation of George W. Bush by unseen controlling powers and many other ideas (some of which don't work at all--the juvenile delinquent segment for one). It's all one big hodge-podge of how destructive capitalism is.
Those are a lot of topics to try and piece together into a united blast against capitalism. Sure, the events that Moore displays are undoubtedly disturbing and upsetting, but there's only a loose thread that binds the subject matter, the people portrayed in the film and Moore's overall message. With the previously mentioned films Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11 and Sicko, Moore had a clear vision of who to attack for maximum effect and he never let the throttle off once. Not so here. Due to the broad topics on display, Capitalism: A Love Story is too vague, it's too over reaching, the large scale scope of the subject matter doesn't allow Moore to pin down his targets successfully. It needed fewer stories, less examples, less jumping from one subject to another. In this case, less would have been more. By having too many things to talk about it has created an almost subdued Michael Moore flick that just doesn't feel as unrelenting as his previous three films.
Despite the heady subject matter of the film, don't expect an overly complicated treatise on economic theory. We get classic Michael Moore trademarks that results in a semi-action film quality, or at least as close to action film land as a documentary will get. There is lots of retro, vintage film stock from the 1950s, Moore attempting to enter buildings with a camera crew (what would a Moore film be without this happening a few times? I have to admit, I am always entertained by this!), an assortment of down on their luck, hardscrabble working people who have lost jobs, a few crying kids, a few pro-capitalist types (not many!), Moore's frail father reminiscing about his 33 years working on a General Motors assembly line, and evicted house owners. There are lots of evicted house owners. It's very hard not to sympathize with these people and the film works best when these people and their stories are at the forefront.
An interesting thing about Moore is the fact that he has become a more and more polarizing figure while his films are actually becoming less polarized, less partisan. Both Sicko and Capitalism: A Love Story are increasingly bi-partisan attacks on the status quo with Moore giving Democrats and Republicans an equal lambasting while exposing their hypocrisies and falsehoods. The main underlying subtext of these two films is the argument that class is more important than whatever political party you belong to and the increasing divide between the small amount of uber-rich and the rest of us.
There is a message for the working class conservative in these films that they will probably not get to see due to the marginalized nature of Moore. He's portrayed as a left-wing zealot by those who can't stand him, and while he's certainly of the leftist persuasion, his evolving message involving class issues is truly something that should matter to people on both the right and the left.
Do not get the impression that Michael Moore has gone completely soft. There is some old-fashioned, incendiary ideas that Moore lets loose in Capitalism: A Love Story that are some of the most intriguing moments in the film. The scary memo from a corporation that brazenly talks about how the control of the United States government is in the hands of big business and banks; Moore then shows how the government (both Democrat and Republican) turned their backs on the will of the people to pass the failing bank buyout. This was a truly frightening sequence. Moore hammers at the government and their unpatriotic, duplicitous nature of hypocrisy who say one thing to the working class, yet always choose to back the rich and powerful. In Moore's version of America, an opinion many share or his films would be less popular, the phrase "We the People" is a falsehood, just one more layer of propaganda for the masses to believe in. These kinds of provocative moments were some of the strongest in Capitalism: A Love Story.
2009 is the 20th anniversary of Moore's first and best film, Roger and Me. He actually refers to Roger and Me and includes a scene in Capitalism: A Love Story. The message of the new film is more complex and with a much bigger budget (and will have a larger audience) but that doesn't make it better. Roger and Me is the far superior film relating to the economic downfall and the irresponsibility of big business/government (to Moore they are one and the same) because Moore is able to attach simple, humanistic elements to his story.
Roger and Me is less ambitious but more direct, the unknown underdog railing against the big business that let his hometown become a desolate wasteland despite record profits. Trying to dispel the same message with a wider swath in Capitalism: A Love Story, Moore doesn't succeed like he did with Roger and Me, as one film is restrained, the other one tries too hard to be too many things to too many subjects. Again, less would have been more effective.
Michael Moore's newest documentary Capitalism: A Love Story will make his fans happy and his enemies angry (although some of the people who hate him might like some of the things he has to say if they'd actually see the film). This is another broadside against the establishment from Moore. Trying to mine a more complicated subject matter, the film is riveting at times, less effective at others.
There are too many layers to its story, which bogs the film down and makes it less concise than it could have been had it been simpler. While Capitalism: A Love Story does not compare to Moore's major works, watching what the most divisive film director of our generation has done should be hard to miss for film lovers, no matter your political affiliation.
Liar, Liar, Gervais on Fire
Ricky Gervais is a man who has never been frightened to mine the uncomfortable for laughter. He's built a career doing so on TV by creating series like The Office (the original British version) and Extras. Both were extremely clever shows that allowed Gervais to tap into various levels of self-loathing in very funny ways. The Invention of Lying is Gervais' first attempt as a screenwriter and director (with help from Matthew Robinson) and it plays to all his usual strengths. So, why isn't this movie more fun and entertaining? The film, as smart and cheeky as it sometimes is, never loses the one-note feeling of negativity that hovers in its story and drags it down.
The Invention of Lying is set in an alternate world where there is no lying. Ever. Nothing but the truth is spoken. People not only tell the truth, they also seem to have no off valve and blurt out all kinds of personal information to friends and strangers alike. The most of private thoughts that no one should ever say out loud just come bubbling to the surface. No one ever thinks it odd as that is the natural way of doing things.
This world of complete honesty means advertising doesn't really exist. There are commercials but there is no trickery and deception in the make-up of the product (Coke talks openly of its being bad for you; Pepsi's subversive anti-motto is: When There's No Coke). Rest homes aren't called rest homes, they are known as "A Sad Place for Restless Old People." There is no fiction in movies, books or anything where imagination takes hold. The movie industry is based on staid readings of historical events. A box office hit is Napoleon 1812-1813.
Mark Bellison is a screenwriter for Lecture Films who is doomed to write stories on the 1300s (the century of the black plague that no one wants to hear about). His work life is in shambles, he goes out with women out of his league, his friends are pathetic, he's short, he's fat and has just enough self-loathing for Gervais to play him.
Bellison's world is turned upside down when desperate inspiration hits his brain synapse and he decides to make something up that isn't true. The concept is lying and no one has ever done that in this world. Bellison's fortunes are suddenly looking much brighter thanks to his, and his alone, strange power. Soon after his invention he is rich, women find him attractive and he just might create religion for the masses.
The Invention of Lying has a very good idea at its core. It's quick-witted, it's intelligent, it's got a terrific cast (with a couple of great cameos), but it's just not funny. While the idea that this is a world where no one ever lies is a good one, it quickly wears out its welcome and can not hold up for the duration of the film. A comedy that is one-note is a comedy that doesn't work and that is what this is. This world on display is a joyless place where brutal honesty takes hold of everyday life and seems to turn everyone miserable. Even for a man as smart and talented as Ricky Gervais, he can't make a story set in this make-believe society fun.
And Gervais is a talented man. Gervais never plays anyone who really likes themselves. He loves to wallow in his character's misery and neurosis. It's a comic goldmine and Gervais takes advantage of it. His comic timing is second to none. He does little things on screen that are forgotten traits such as the comedic pause, the doubletake or uses slight voice inflections. He uses verbal and non-verbal elements and makes most of this seem so effortless it's hard to catch. Next time you watch him, pay attention, his invisible comedic style is magical.
The Invention of Lying is a failure. While it gets points for having a clever idea, making some satirical barbs at our culture and has the talented Gervais leading a good cast, comedies are judged by one thing and one thing only--laughter. The Invention of Lying is too one-noted and doesn't deliver enough of them to make it anything other than an interesting failure.
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