Michael Moore’s latest documentary is both moving and blackly comical, and his best since Roger and Me, writes Donald Clarke
ABOUT A decade ago, Nick Cave announced that he was going to record an album composed entirely of murder ballads. At the time, more than a few wags wondered how the new LP would differ from every other record released by Cave.
Michael Moore watchers could be forgiven for reacting similarly when catching sight of the ironic title for the bulky documentarian’s new picture. Moore has decided to take a shot at capitalism? It’s like hearing that Lars Von Trier was to release a film called Cheekily Provocative Shock Drama Featuring Gratuitous Nudity. Who’d have thought it?
As it happens, Capitalism: A Love Story turns out to be Moore’s least tendentious, most sincerely felt film since 1989’s Roger and Me. It’s not quite as funny as either Bowling for Columbine or Fahrenheit 911, but, featuring fewer deranged conspiracy theories and relying less on dubious
half-truths, it’s somewhat less difficult to dismiss as an empty polemic for the already converted.
Moore’s specific subject is, of course, the clutch of financial typhoons that struck the Western world over the last two years. He begins with a supreme example of his genius for comic montage. While an ancient Encyclopaedia Britannica film talks us through the fall of Rome, Moore cuts to various contemporary parallels to the events and situations described. Mention of circuses is followed by shots of American Idol. Mention of chariot races is succeeded by footage of a Nascar race.
“By what will future generations judge us?” Moore asks. We are then offered two alternatives: a series of comically captioned lolcats and a middle-aged couple being evicted from their family farm.
Thus the film continues. Grim, often sincerely moving scenes featuring capitalism’s victims are juxtaposed with moments of pointed absurdity. As we progress, the humour gets steadily more savage.
Though Capitalism is less gimmicky than its predecessors, Moore fans will still encounter a number of their hero’s greatest hits. Once again, as in Roger and Me, he makes a futile attempt to stomp his way up to the boardroom of General Motors. He stands on Wall Street and futilely seeks advice from bankers, only for a some guy to shout: “Don’t make any more movies!” And, yes, he drags out George Bush for one more stream of inarticulate gibberish.
Sure, these sequences are cheap. But who doesn’t enjoy laughing at W’s dangling participles, or watching Michael Moore being manhandled by baffled security men. Those are two comedy staples of the age.
The gags do not, however, overly distract from the power of Moore’s larger argument (or larger question). After pointing us towards some truly mind-boggling scandals – most notably a scheme, brazenly nicknamed “dead peasants”, that allows major corporations to profit from their employees’ deaths – he goes on to suggest that the entire capitalist system may be inherently evil. (Some viewers may be impressed that local priests and bishops agree with him, but I saw no reason to listen more closely to them than to anybody else.)
With this argument, the film dares to challenge both liberal complacency and conservative free-market evangelism. The expert in the film who comes closest to reflecting Moore’s zeal is, ironically, a right-wing journalist for the Washington Post. By suggesting that democracy is less important than the maintenance of the free market, he, too, allows himself to think the thinkable.
Does it matter that Moore is so vague about the alternative? Surely not. No smart diagnostician will avoid examining a patient simply because he suspects the fellow’s disease may have no effective cure. Moore cannot be faulted for his righteous anger or his ability to transform the fury into viciously powerful jokes.
Mind you, the biggest laugh in Capitalism is perhaps unintentional. In one unfortunate moment, Moore discusses the regeneration of the German and Japanese car industries after the war. Those nation’s cars, apparently, “rarely if ever break down”.
Oops! Toyota owners might disagree. AS IT’S awards season, we really should invent some sort of gong for the makers of this cosmically atrocious romcom. The Golden Moron? The Lobotomised Reactionary? Something like that.
Leap Year manages to be stomach-churningly offensive in two distinct fields. We have become used to the contemporary romcom reducing women to the status of 13th-century indentured serfs, but the attitudes here imposed on Amy Adams would seem unsophisticated to a lady sea slug.
Employed in some particularly revolting area of an upmarket estate agency, Adams, a prim New Yorker, is frustrated by her boyfriend’s refusal to propose marriage. Then, shortly after he heads to Dublin for work, her father reminds her of an ancient Irish custom that states that, on February 29th of a leap year, a woman can propose to a man.
Well, fancy that. Is Adams also allowed to walk the street unaccompanied on this day? Can she remove her muzzle? Does she get a day off from ritual caning?
Anyway, Amy heads to Ireland, but, after a terrible storm hits, finds herself directed to Wales. She secures a boat ride to Dingle – I know, I know, but geography is the least of our problems here – and, after hooking up with Matthew Goode’s bizarrely accented publican, begins making her way northwards.
How vile is the patronising portrayal of Ireland and its people in this wretched piece of cinematic ordure? Well, old men lean on walls and spout superstitious gibberish to anybody within earshot. Employees of the railway cast their eyes to heaven at the notion of trains on a Sunday. Landladies express disgust at the concept of unmarried couples attempting to secure a room.
Oddly, however, it is one tiny snatch of apparently insignificant dialogue that really burrows its way into the part of the brain that generates righteous anger. Yes. A minor character actually says “top of the morning to you”.
Let’s hope the team don’t chose to set their next picture in China. That nation might not take kindly to, say, Goode pulling his eyes back into slits and mouthing the words “Velly good. Velly good” at the love interest.
If a worse film is released this year I’ll eat my own weight in cuddly leprechauns. So I will. So I will.
No cameras: Michael Moore rakes some corporate muck in Capitalism: A Love Story