Toronto Review: ‘The Yes Men Are Revolting’ Puts Activism in a Personal Light

Toronto Review: 'The Yes Men Are Revolting' Puts Activism in a Personal Light

Culture jammers the Yes Men have developed a reputation for activist pranks that trick corporations into showing their uglier sides, but the work takes a toll on its committed perpetrators.

That’s the chief takeaway from the engaging documentary “The Yes Men Are Revolting,” which puts it in a class ahead of predecessors “The Yes Men” and “The Yes Men Fix the World.” Once again, the movie — co-directed by Yes Men duo Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (not their real names) and Laura Nix — documents a variety of Yes Men stunts as a means of exposing global problems, in this case focusing on climate change. But while these scenes offer the same informative blend of goofy behavior and reportage, the third chapter in “The Yes Men” franchise manages to personalize its subjects’ quest, easily making it the best of the series to date.

The form of “The Yes Men Are Revolting” hasn’t changed. Its opening sequence marks the first of several tricks captured over the course of the 90-minute movie: Andy and Mike (whose real names are Jacques Servin and Igor Vamos) oversee an attempt to launch “survive balls” across the East River to the United Nations to raise awareness about the environment. From there, the movie dovetails into a snazzy montage of the pair’s antics, mainly involving their recurrent attempts to imitate public officials and use the publicity to expose their recklessness.

But even though “The Yes Men Are Revolting” features the usual pileup of stunts and first-rate animation to explain their intentions, Nix and her collaborators place their efforts in an intimate context. Like many third entries in a trilogy, the approach enhances the stakes of their work and gives new meaning to everything preceding it. Unlike many third entries in a trilogy, this one doesn’t suck.

After chronicling another successful hoax, the movie slows down to explore the contrast between their home lives. Mike embraces domestic life with his wife and two young children, but winds up moving from New York to Scotland in an attempt to get away from the rush. With another child on the way, he hides the news from Andy, who’s buried in their next efforts and uncertain about Mike’s future commitments. A tireless workaholic, Andy attempts to settle into a relationship with a new boyfriend, only to find that his other priorities endanger his romantic prospects. “I find work easier than people,” he admits.

“The Yes Men” is ultimately more affecting when it focuses on these intimate details instead of each new scheme, and the contrast in quality is especially evident as the movie jumps back and forth. But that doesn’t mean the pranks don’t deliver in their own right. One bit finds Andy venturing to the Arctic to protest Shell’s attempt to drain it of natural resources, an effort that culminates with a mock Shell conference in Seattle and a delightful slapstick moment. Another intriguing sequence finds their climate change efforts migrating to Amsterdam, where an absurd stunt involving a fake polar bear goes horribly wrong. It’s this sequence where the cheery facade gives way to their reservations about their craft, which they confront in a candid dialogue much later.

Along the way, “The Yes Men” sketches out the duo’s origin stories with compelling details. The most notable of these is that they’re both descendants of Holocaust survivors. When one of the men asserts that they grew up knowing that “power couldn’t always be trusted,” it brings a greater degree of clarity to their mission than any of the modern events in their crosshairs.

Ultimately, these scenes come second to the usual stream of actions, some of which are more appealing than others. The role of Occupy Wall Street in encouraging the Yes Men to keep at it feels somewhat stale, and a lawsuit fired at them by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce never seems like enough of a threat for real concern. The usual climax, where the men conceive of a plan to get clueless corporate figures to participate in an inane presentation — in this case, an embellished Native American song that parodies the businessmen’s naiveté — is amusing and pointed but not all that different from similar efforts we’ve seen the team pull off before.

Nevertheless, even these routine sequences derive fresh meaning from the process of rediscovery experienced by the Yes Men as they consider their next steps. The team has always hinted at the sincerity driving their efforts, but with “The Yes Men Are Revolting,” they reveal the toll it takes on them. Their ongoing commitment has a triumphant quality not because the world takes notice — it has done that before — but because the men finally appreciate their place in it.

Grade: B+

“The Yes Men Are Revolting” premiered last week at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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