On the downturn
Economic crisis wears Michael Moore out
I watched Capitalism: A Love Story at a weekend matinee in a half-filled theater. Or maybe it was really only half-empty. Either way, the near-funereal silence of the audience through most of the screening was kind of eerie, especially given the topical nature of Michael Moore’s material, not to mention the confrontational comedy in his approach to social documentary.
The facetious-sounding title signals, more or less correctly, that the new Moore movie will be another of his exercises in semi-satirical documentary, with various loose ends of stand-up comedy and social protest rubbing shoulders in mostly entertaining and at least occasionally provocative fashion. But Moore’s now-familiar movie-making routines are wearing kind of thin, and in Capitalism, the tiredness shows in ways that should be evident even to the most devoted of his fans.
Indeed, there are belated signs that Moore himself recognizes it as well—particularly in his concluding voice-over call to action, which is prefaced by a note of resignation. “I can’t keep doing this,” he says, and then he invites us to join him in a (presumably collective) political effort.
That final verbal gesture drew a smattering of applause from my fellow matinee viewers, the lone instance of audible enthusiasm during the entire screening. But the preceding hint of authorial resignation seems equally apposite—Moore’s movie-making shtick is not only wearing itself out, it’s also proving itself insufficient in the face of its weighty and urgent subject matter.
Moore’s “love story” makes some rather desultory additions to his trademark collection of jabs and jibes at corporate America. But it’s not really up to its proclaimed tasks—of critiquing capitalism as an economic and political system, and of throwing some valuable light, political or otherwise, on the economic calamities of recent times.
Moore does get an obviously provocative array of issues into this somewhat dazed little film—foreclosure debacles, bank bailouts, student loan schemes, “dead peasant insurance,” underpaid airline pilots, health-insurance outrages, factory closures, mortgage derivatives, etc., etc. Much of that comes amid the customary Moore mixtures of sorrowful documentary, satirical jiggering of archival footage, bits of semi-autobiographical sentiment, and a moment or two of Roger and Me-style antics attempting to catch CEOs on camera.
At its occasional best, Moore’s Capitalism is stirring and astute—never more so than with some long-overlooked footage of FDR making the case for a “new citizen’s bill of rights” in 1944. But quite a lot of it is a sketchy re-hash of stuff you probably already know, and Moore’s presence, on-screen and in voice-overs, is mostly faux-naif clowning with occasional strokes of rather sophomoric sarcasm.
The present economic crisis dwarfs even the best of Moore’s jibes, and I’m guessing that that has something to do with the spooky silences of that matinee audience. Moore himself, at the finish, seems to sense that too, at least in part. And that leaves the feeling that the Michael Moore of this particular movie is understandably rather tired, although not entirely defeated.