REVIEW: “Capitalism: A Love Story” (***)

Posted by · 4:16 pm · September 5th, 2009

Capitalism: A Love StoryVenice Film Festival

It was well before Michael Moore dropped an extensive archive-footage chunk of a Franklin D. Roosevelt speech into the last reel of “Capitalism: A Love Story” that the following thought entered my head, but the appearance of FDR and his homespun common sense crystallized it: Michael Moore is this generation’s Frank Capra.

By that token, “Capitalism: A Love Story” – an artlessly effective slice of rah-rah rhetoric more sincerely idealistic than anything the director has yet put his name to – represents Moore’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

A film made in the infant stages of vast social healing (substitute the end of WWII for the beginning of the Obama presidency), it uses its transitional timing to examine alternately the America that was, could have been and hopefully will be.

As with the prototypical Capra film, “Capitalism” places its faith in the American everyman, while blanketing evil as a vaguer collective, defending the rights and ability of the former with unashamed sentimentality and sledgehammer subtlety.

The bait for the filmmaker’s multiple critics to seize upon is left prominently and deliberately exposed – the film is a veritable compendium of all Moore’s most manipulative muckraking tactics, whether it’s the wilfully decontextualized use of vintage news clips or the breathtaking exploitation of having an ordinary Joe tearfully read a love letter to his deceased wife on camera. No button is left unpushed in the service of an argument that already doesn’t have to work very hard to win over the liberal public, but Moore isn’t one to leave much to chance.

The question, then, isn’t just whether “Capitalism: A Love Story” (a wholly meaningless title, incidentally) is a good film, but whether it really needs – or even wants – to be one. As cinema, it certainly isn’t as formally inventive or powerful as “Roger & Me” or “Bowling for Columbine,” or even as viscerally seething as “Fahrenheit 9/11,” but it doesn’t speak any less loudly or chidingly than those films.

Perhaps because his subject matter on this occasion has already been so ubiquitously discussed in recent months, Moore has less fresh perspective to offer on events. His role here shifts from inciter to interpreter, assembling the circumstances that brought about the rise and recent fall of American capitalism, and breaking them down for us in chatty CliffsNotes fashion. The message, on this occasion, is the medium.

Michael Moore in Capitalism: A Love StoryMoore is a filmmaker who aggravates many critics and viewers because he aggressively forces them into feeling, be it guilt, compassion or righteous indignation towards Moore himself: an approach that unnerves by lessening, or even removing, the interpretive distance between audience and screen.

“Capitalism” finds him working this groove to the abandonment of craft altogether – visually and rhythmically, it’s probably his dullest film to date, with a second half that devolves frequently into a mere parade of talking heads. Nonetheless, the film bludgeons you so persistently and gracelessly with its rapid patter of information that it’s hard not to feel what it wants you to feel.

Even as one questions the taste of his interviewing approach towards victims of corporate life-insurance scams, one’s anger is directed inexorably towards the corporations in question; even as one groans inwardly at Moore’s old-hat Bush-baiting, the reckless stupidity of the former president’s words ring louder and clearer than one’s inner critic.

This might read so far as an overly soft defence of a film for reasons of intention over execution, but Moore makes a number of less defensible aesthetic and ideological missteps, occasionally to the detriment of his own argument.

The redubbing of dialogue in pre-existing clips ranging from “Jesus of Nazareth” to a home-loan commercial to support whatever comparison Moore is making at the time is a cheap, grade-level goof that makes his argument look thinner than it is, but it’s a mild annoyance compared to his frustratingly narrow selection of interview subjects.

Michael Moore (left) in Capitalism: A Love StoryTo an even greater degree than his previous films, Moore shies away from direct interaction with informed defenders of America’s economic policy, choosing instead to devote screentime to such arbitrary, unilluminating allies as playwright Wallace Shawn and his family priest. Compounding this narrow sense of chumminess is a notable amount of self-referencing, from Moore’s childhood home videos to reiteration of economic argument and footage from his General Motors layoff doc “Roger & Me,” complete with smug “I told you so” editorializing.

But if this kind of flip obnoxiousness is par for the course for Moore, and a hindrance to the film’s wider resonance, he seems oddly aware, for the first time, of his own limitations.

The resident social prankster in Moore is kept on a very short leash this time – limited to genially bothering a few security guards outside the Bank of America and passing yellow crime scene tape around the New York Stock Exchange – but more unusual is the streak of weary humility that shows up in his narration towards the end. “I can’t do this anymore,” he says, before imploring the audience to take the baton from him.

Whether or not that’s an actual admission of retirement – my money’s on ‘not’ – it does raise the question of how much Obama’s America, should it leave up to its socialist promise, might have need of a Michael Moore. (Perhaps as much as the upwardly mobile America of the 1950s had need of Frank Capra.) Until we find out, he remains resolutely (and perhaps still necessarily) the people’s filmmaker: sneer if you like, but sometimes the obvious needs to be stated, and in an obvious fashion at that.

→ 19 Comments Tags: , , , , , | Filed in: Reviews

19 responses so far

  • 1 9-05-2009 at 4:33 pm

    david said...

    Nice review Guy. I’ll probably wait and catch this one on DVD. An extremely astute observation on your part comparing Moore and Capra. I have to admit, I’d never have made that connection on my own. One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about Moore’s films the most (from purely and entertainment standpoint) is his being, in your words, the resident social prankster. I’m disappointed to hear he doesn’t cause more trouble this time around.

  • 2 9-05-2009 at 5:33 pm

    Loyal said...

    I’m looking forward to seeing this film. Moore has a perfect record thus far and it looks like the streak continues.

    It would be a real shame if he did retire from the game.

  • 3 9-05-2009 at 6:18 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Your fourth and fifth paragraphs are perfect descriptions of every Michael Moore film.

    Great review.

  • 4 9-05-2009 at 6:35 pm

    Dan said...

    Guy, that was a fantastic review. Worthy of the New York Times–seriously.

  • 5 9-05-2009 at 6:43 pm

    AmericanRequiem said...

    im gonna guess best picture is going a bit to far, would you say so?

  • 6 9-05-2009 at 7:33 pm

    BobMcBob said...

    Looks like your showing your political colors more and more, Guy.

    I wonder if you would have given a right-wing film a positive review if it was as poorly executed as this film.

  • 7 9-05-2009 at 7:39 pm

    david said...

    Bob McBob: Of course Guy wouldn’t have given a right-wing film a positive review if it was poorly executed. He has better taste then that. And if he did, I would completely lose all respect for him as a human being, and his opinions as a film critic.


  • 8 9-06-2009 at 12:09 am

    red_wine said...

    Even though your review is positive, from what you’ve written, the film doesn’t seem very promising. Economics is extremely complicated, he can’t sell the public “the banks stole your money” rhetoric. Its over-simplification. If he wants to provoke the less-informed folks, he might be successful, but anyone who has followed the meltdown closely will only be condescendingly amused.

  • 9 9-06-2009 at 2:54 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Bob: The other day someone else gave me grief for not being personal enough in my review. Now I’m allowing my own persuasions to lead me too much, apparently. You’re a tough bunch to please!

    Seriously, though, I think the film is bang on-target for its audience, and the review reflects that. There’s plenty wrong with it too, and the review reflects that too. Whether the star rating reflects that or not is another matter — I’ve never been very good at quantifying art like that.

    Red Wine: I pretty much agree with you — this isn’t a movie for the experts.

    David, Robert and Dan: Thanks for the kind words. It means a lot to hear that. Seriously.

  • 10 9-06-2009 at 10:28 am

    rkeane said...

    Where is the coverage for the other documentary called Stock Shock

    Stock Shock
    ” The Short Selling of the American Dream ”

    This movie is also about Wall Street Law Changes that cripples this country financially due to Greed and coruption.

    Richard Keane, narrator Stock Shock

  • 11 9-06-2009 at 12:23 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Requiem: I’m not really the person to ask about such matters. But my gut instinct says no — I don’t think it’s unusual or abrasive enough to break through.

  • 12 9-06-2009 at 2:01 pm

    Edward said...

    This is the kind of thing that at times leaves me angry and despairing. An economic system “bridled” by capricious interventionism of every sort, tens of thousands of regulations, thousands of lobbyist acting on behalf of special interest groups of every sort – including big business – yet what is blamed? Our guiding mainstream Keynesian theories? No. A non-existent economic liberalism. The worst the mess gets the more of the poison that caused it – statism – as prescribed as the cure. Those who predicted the housing debacle and present economic mess and the reasons for it ( are marginalized into obscurity – yet blamed for it!

  • 13 9-06-2009 at 3:07 pm

    J.D. said...

    While waiting for Michael Moore’s movie “Capitalism, A Love Story” to come out, I found another new movie about stock market corruption:”Stock Shock.” From what I hear it is just like MM’s new flick which just premiered at the Venice Film Fest, but “Stock Shock” is shipping now.

    The movie follows several Sirius XM investors through their experience of watching their stock go from almost ten dollars a share—down to 5 cents/share. The movie suggests this might be due to “naked short selling” and other stock market manipulation by high rollers on Wall Street. I don’t know if I’m a believer, but at least it gives a good review of how our stock markets are engineered. Amazon has it or

  • 14 9-09-2009 at 1:21 pm

    WriterOnTheStorm said...

    When it comes to judging documentaries, critics often display an appalling inability to separate the subject matter from the filmmaking merits. This is never more evident than with Moore’s work. It’s as if critics en mass, are temporarily blinded to the reality that all films are polemics. All films, even the most seemingly “neutral”, attempt to manipulate the viewer emotionally.

    That these manipulative techniques, lauded in the context of pure entertainment film, are traditionally vilified in documentaries, betrays an industry-wide bias about the the role documentary is expected to play in the panoply of film. But in the context of Moore’s work, this tendency often masks a deeper agenda.

    When I discuss Moore with friends, many of whom echo the standard objection to his “shaky facts”, I simply ask them, which version of the post-9/11 buildup to the war in Iraq is more historically accurate, that of our own government (Bush administration) or that of Michael Moore in Fahrenheit 911?

    What I’m getting at is this: Moore’s work may be polemical, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. And it doesn’t grant the viewer the intellectual right to dismiss it on those grounds. Thanks, Guy, for separating the subject matter from the film, and the man from the facts.

  • 15 9-16-2009 at 11:46 am

    scott said...

    what is the song in the background from the commercail

  • 16 9-16-2009 at 12:40 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    You mean from the trailer? There are several, the most prominent being Paper Planes by M.I.A.