WHAT WOULD JESUS BUY? (2007, directed by Rob Van Alkemade, 91 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC
It’s hard to reconcile what has become the modern American version of Christmas and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Look at Luke 12:15, where the man they called Christ warns against covetousness, “for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” I don’t know if real pastors are preaching such anti-materialist messages this holiday season, but performance artist Bill Talen ponders the question of Christ’s capitalist instincts under the guise of “Reverend Billy” in this diverting new documentary produced and co-written by Super Size Me‘s Morgan Spurlock.
Talen was an unemployed actor living in Times Square in the ’90s, frustrated by how the neighborhood was quickly changing under an influx of chain stores. Getting inspiration from streetcorner preachers and their megaphones, Talen invented the character of Reverend Billy, a sort of Southern-fried John Astin, to voice his anti-corporate/anti-consumerist message and from there The Church of Stop Shopping, complete with a 34-member choir, was born. What Would Jesus Buy centers around the group’s national tour as they stage theatrical activist “happenings” for the confused shopping hordes charging their way through the holiday season.
Super Size Me sold itself on the spectacle of one man eating too much fast food yet it was really just an excuse to talk about the nation’s health and diet. WWJB may be powered by Reverend Billy’s confrontational shenanigans, yet its agenda is to discuss America’s over-spending, which currently has the average household savings at below zero for the first time since the (gulp) Depression. James Scurlock’s recent doc Maxed Out deals with the issue more in depth, yet WWJB brings a breezy wit to its presentation.
Montages show chirpy Black Friday morning show hosts demanding viewers run down their neighbors on the way to the mall while the shoppers there express a queasy mix of love, duty and worry as they trudge into the big-box stores to empty their bank accounts (the U.S. has enough retail space to hold the entire populations of North and South America and Europe combined, according to a film factoid).
Responsible consumerism is a message unavoidably left in the dust by the commercial media, making Reverend Billy’s message seem more sacrilegious than his priestly getup. Funny, it wasn’t that long ago that Charlie Brown was asking the same questions in his holiday special, yet give Reverend Billy a megaphone and a mall parking lot and suddenly security is being called and threats are being made. Everyone is funnier when they are under arrest and watching the good Reverend banter with the authorities on the way to the paddy wagon has its own built-in, Borat-like excitement, with the choir singing on and the cops still somewhat leery of disrespecting a man in a priest’s collar (“Didn’t you see me? I just blessed a baby,” he unsuccessfully argues with a straight-faced security guard).
The tour takes a few surprising turns, and the 34 member choir’s potent chugging gospel parodies help propel the rambling narrative to its ultimate unannounced appearance on Disneyland’s Main Street U.S.A. (“But all this stuff is made in China!” the Rev howls from the gift shops). Reverend Billy’s confrontational style may be a turnoff for those who are determined to shop themselves silly, but watching little future consumers unwrapping their mini-Hummers on Christmas Day makes one glad someone is out there braving the crowds to ask the film’s title question.