'Where to Invade Next'
The title of Michael Moore’s latest documentary is deliberately and misleadingly provocative. At a quick glance, it’s easy to assume that this will be Moore’s all-out assault on American imperialism, calling out the U.S. military’s approach to international relations. But that’s just a fake-out. The truth is that this is easily one of Moore’s fluffiest outings as a filmmaker, but not in a bad way.
‘Where to Invade Next’ is still very much a critique of modern America from a man who has made a career out of doing exactly that. However, this time it comes in a friendlier package gently suggesting improvements rather than angrily calling out wrongs. That’s a refreshing change of pace from this guy.
As it turns out, it’s Moore doing the invading. After a convoluted introduction claiming that the broken government has decided to send the documentarian out into the world to figure out how to fix America, Moore visits other lands to marvel at their progressive social programs. It starts off rather goofily. The first stop is in Italy, where Moore is gobsmacked at the fact that all Italian workers are given eight weeks paid vacation every year. Then it’s off to France where the filmmaker discovers gourmet school lunch programs offering kids a vast cheese selection and mountains of capers. Both play into gentle stereotypes for laughs, showing off cool Italian layabouts and French gourmands, with Moore as the stereotypical dumb American who can’t believe his eyes when the children of France balk at sipping from a can of Coke. It’s cute, funny and even jarring, but not much more than mild culture shock comedy. As the film moves on, Moore’s findings turn biting.
In a trip to Norway, convicted felons are treated with dignity and offered a chance to better themselves in prison. A stop in Slovenia reveals that everyone gets a free college education. A stroll through Germany shows the sins of World War II on full display, and a visit to Iceland explains that the country’s economy was saved by making it mandatory that women be involved in major political offices and financial institutions. While early sketches merely point out that school lunches could be better and that vacations improve life, the latter half of the movie gets far more angry and pointed in its critique of America’s vicious prison machine, punishing student debt, rampant misogyny, and guilty attempts to hide its history of slavery and the marginalization of native communities. Moore cuts deep into these and a variety of other dirty secrets that are rarely addressed. Even so, the movie ends up feeling more bubbly and amusing than his last few angry provocations that made him a public enemy on Fox News. The difference is all in the approach.
Rather than creating a cinematic essay outlining harsh truths, the doc is a celebration of possible solutions. By playing dumb (perhaps a little too much; it’s hard to take Moore’s shocked reactions seriously when he clearly researched all of these subjects in detail before setting foot on foreign soil), Moore just lets the way other countries have gotten around these problems speak for themselves. While he draws comparisons regularly, he doesn’t dwell too deeply on American ugliness. Instead, he dedicates the film to showing how his country could be improved rather than tearing it down (often through solutions that were founded in the U.S. and then abandoned). His humor is more playful than biting and he often lets himself be the butt of the joke rather than presenting himself as the only sane voice in the room.
Most of Moore’s most obnoxious excesses have been dialed back and the prevailing air of optimism that hangs over the movie is infectious. Granted, all that optimism clearly conceals a certain rage that Moore vents here and there (especially when discussing why he believes women deserve more control), but that’s only visible to those looking deeply. On the surface, Moore is playing the role of a lovable goofball again, and it works.
That being said, ‘Where to Invade Next’ isn’t exactly Michael Moore’s finest film. Preachy though they may have been, at least ‘Bowling for Columbine’ and ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ had clear and cohesive themes and theses to take away from the theater, whether you agreed with them or not. This movie is more of a general exploration of how certain social services in the U.S. could be better. Clearly, Moore became fascinated by a variety of issues in the six years since he last made a documentary and this was the concept that allowed him to include as many as possible. That’s fine. It’s not a bad way to dive into all of these topics at once. The trouble is that they all deserve more screen time and examination than this documentary has to offer. It feels a little rushed and probably would have worked far better stretched out into a short TV series than condensed into a two hour documentary.
Still, it’s nice to have Moore back and, more importantly, to see him in a playful mode that slips righteous indignation in amidst his particular brand of slacker satire, rather than the other way around. A tighter focus and a similar tone could lead to a very special movie from this guy next time.