CINEMA: Love Hurts

capitalism_love_story1.jpgCAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY (2009, directed by Michael Moore, 120 minutes, U.S.)

THE INVENTION OF LYING (2009, directed by Ricky Gervais & Matthew Roberts, 100 minutes, U.S.)

Michael Moore has reached the point in his career where critics seem to feel like they can just dismiss him out of hand. Vague accusations of shuffling events in his documentaries dog him, complaints of egotism for appearing before the camera (isn’t the term “personal documentary” in our vocabulary yet?) and other grumbling, most of which seems to boil down to: “I just don’t like him.”  But of course people don’t like him, here’s spent 20 years now being the country’s official bearer of bad news. He may look like a typical Walmart shopper, with his puffy sneakers, baseball ball cap and extra heft, yet to many Americans Michael Moore looks like the Grim Reaper when he enters the room, guaranteed to tell us some horrible news we’re going to hate hearing.

His latest, Capitalism: A Love Story, is a joyless victory lap. Twenty years ago, his debut Roger and Me presented the dying factory town of Flint Michigan as being a bleak ghost of America’s future. Today that future has arrived. Moore’s humor is still here but by this point it has turned coal black, and like Capitalism‘s opening educational film-within-the-film, in which the scratchy 50’s soundtrack describes the causes of the Roman Empire’s fall, it rings an all-too familiar modern chime.

The film is deceptively well-plotted, the first third showing the gory realities of corporate capitalism left unchecked by regulation.  It’s a world where everything is reduced to numbers and if that means the numbers aren’t there to fill up the new private for-profit youth prison in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, you can just spread some capitalism on the local judge and he’ll increase those numbers. If your company is not going to pay your workers enough to receive medical care, the business might as well secretly take out insurance to collect a tidy sum when they die (a memo sensitively label this the “dead peasant” fund). The logic is unassailable, as long as you don’t get emotional thinking about those fixed digits as people. Moore brings their faces and stories to as large an audience as they likely will ever receive, and they are all about as sad and unbelievable as you might imagine.

The next third deals with the recent financial collapse and the bailout that awarded Wall Street with more cash than all U.S. wars combined, with nearly no strings attached.  Although the bailout was nearly squelched after the switchboards of Capitol Hill lit up like never before, days later a deal was cut. This unfathomable amount of wealth just seemed to disappear, its only evidence spotted in record bonuses for all involved.  It’s not as if this moment went unnoticed by the press, but in an age where the next news spectacle is always around the corner, this momentous redistribution of wealth deserves the extra scrutiny Moore brings.

With the Bush years over, Moore has acceded that the problem goes beyond Democrat and Republican and goes after the elephant in the room: Capitalism. Although nothing about the economic system is enshrined in our Constitution, to discuss flaws in Capitalism is roughly on par with blasphemy, as if to question a system that has diverted ninety-some percent the nation’s wealth to the top one percent of the population aligns you with the crimes of Stalin.  By making a single word, “Capitalism” the new enemy, Moore stigmatizes the debate. Is a plan to provide a bigger social safety net really the same as adopting Socialism?  Moore needs to define his terms in a more precise manner if he’s going to paint what this new world would look like. (Coincidentally, a similar financial documentary opens in Philly today, American Casino, which works harder in defining its terms but is about half as absorbing).

The final third of the film chronicles a few battles that have been won on this increasingly treacherous landscape: the successful sit-in at Republic Doors & Windows and a Florida neighborhood’s eviction protest that kept a household intact.  It wants to send you out energized but he film’s bleak national landscape is hard to shake.  With Moore threatening a retirement from documentaries, Capitalism: A Love Story seems to be at the end of a story, leaving us with an America that has officially jumped the shark.

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I left the new film by British comedian Ricky Gervais uncomfortably disoriented: did I really understand comedy better the co-creator of The Office? In his first film as a director (actually co-director with Mathew Robinson) Gervais has concocted a mix of romantic fantasy that he himself might have mocked as a bad Jim Carrey vehicle on his show Extras.  While his TV work shows Gervais to be one of the brightest comic minds of the decade, his second leading film roll finds him again making work that seems like a cynical attempt at the sort of assembly line comedy crappy enough for an American audience.

In a role that just as easily could have been cast with Gregg Kinnear, Gervais plays Mark Bellison, an unassuming writer who lives in a alternate world without lies.  We witness the drawbacks of such a world when we see Anna (Jennifer Garner) greet Mark for their blind date, quickly announcing that he is not attractive or successful enough for her.  Hearing such straight-faced shallowness makes it hard to hope she and Gervais’ Mark end up together and the script gives us little help in loving Garner’s empty Julia Roberts look-alike.

It’s not just the inability to lie that plagues this population, it is a total lack of imagination, so when Mark’s mind is shown growing a synapse that allows him to lie no one can imagine that what he says is not the truth. In this way he can actually shape reality, making people believe whatever it is he says. He briefly flirts with the idea of using his new powers for sex and money but instead uses them to write the first imaginative film ever. This becomes a smash, leading to an ill-conceived subplot where Mark’s descriptions of Heaven become gospel.

It all sounds like it could gel into some Capra-like look at the human condition but the ideas are actually funnier in description then in the thudding literalness of their execution. Distracting cameos are everywhere (if your script has a bartender with ten lines, why not give them to Academy Award winner Philip Seymour Hoffman?) and just so you know we’re talking about real Hollywood product, they even have Mark deliver the gospel on pizza boxes, with a national pizza chain’s logo given lingering camera time.

A large part of being a successful screen comedian is knowing how your audience wants to see you, understanding what sort of character they want to watch you inhabit. Both David Brent from The Office and Extra’s bitter-film-extra-turned-bitter-sitcom-clown Andy Millman were openly flawed and at times pathetic little men. Their social awkwardness and craven ambition made them interesting, at times unlikable characters. In both The Invention of Lying and last year’s Ghost Town Gervais has made himself the blandest of everymen, the sort of blank squares Hollywood pastes into films without thinking, ordinary Joes constructed for the widest range of men to relate. It’s sad to see as unique an actor as Gervais squeezing himself into such a undignified girdle.

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