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by Eric Kohn
September 23, 2009 4:36 AM
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REVIEW | Simplistically Charming "Capitalism" Doesn't Quite Add Up

A scene from Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story." Image courtesy of Overture Films.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This review was originally published as part of indieWIRE's coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. "Capitalism: A Love Story" opens in theaters today.

Michael Moore's "Capitalism: A Love Story" delivers the documentarian's standard mix of historical survey and stunt activism with a simplistic charm. Focusing on mortgage foreclosure sales and other beasts of the recession, Moore aims for a universal rallying call to action. He strings police tape around Wall Street buildings and jokingly attempts to make citizen arrests of financial top dogs. These stunts are counteracted by Moore's attention to dramatic personal stories and basically compelling overviews of the current economic climate. As a result, "Capitalism" alternates between comedic playfulness and one-dimensional investigative journalism, but not in accordance with any particularly systematic routine. The movie contains valuable ideas, but not the sum of their arrangement. Overlong and scatterbrained, it's like a Saturday morning cartoon marathon version of the financial crisis.

Which doesn't mean it lacks a necessary ideological kick. Moore smartly uses amusing analogies to explain the situation: He dubs a misleading loan ad with Mafia dialogue ("a loan you can't refuse"), compares Wall Street to a casino, and equates modern capitalism to ancient Rome. This polemical approach often gets maligned as overly simplistic, but Moore's not trying to make a "60 Minutes" special. His movies, when effective, combine streamlined entertainment values with rudimentary -- but essential and unquestionably real -- observations. The movie opens with surveillance camera footage of robberies, a lively montage later brought down to Earth when a blue collar worker evicted from his home facetiously concludes that his only option left is to rob the bank.

While Moore's last few movies focused on specific concerns, "Capitalism" involves a vast landscape of issues that no single feature could possibly absorb, so he attempts to make the story personal. He excerpts from "Roger and Me" to define his ongoing history with the subject of vast corporations and their dangerous spending habits, then visits his dad's old GM spark plug plant on the day the company files for bankruptcy. Though not tremendously moving, these scenes do allow us to sympathize with Moore rather than questioning his motives or viewing him as an egomaniac.

There's no question that "Capitalism" oversimplifies a hugely complicated problem, but that's sort of the point. Entertaining to a fault, it's designed for today's viewers and today's viewers alone. In ten years, it will look both dated and confused. Now, however, Moore's rambling accounts of government subsidies and insurance scandals merely animate the current headlines. He runs through recent events as if devising bullet points, referencing Bernie Madoff and Captain Sully at random points, crafting arguments that only work within the narrative because of their immediate familiarity.

But the driving force of "Capitalism" is undeniably sincere. Highlighting the efforts of FDR, Jimmy Carter and the current president to rectify American's addition to wealth, Moore concludes that you, his platonic ideal of an audience, need to join him in fighting back against the wealthy corporate infrastructure. The final plea isn't particularly effective, but it remains earnest from start to finish. That's enough to charm some people as long as it doesn't put them to sleep first. At over two hours, "Capitalism" could unquestionably use a trim, but so could American spending habits, so there! That's the sophomoric, histrionic justification necessary for the phenomenon of Michael Moore -- love him or hate him, an undeniably influential creature of present-day concerns.

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1 Comment

  • Denise Hubbard | September 23, 2009 6:30 AMReply

    Michael Moore's "Capitalism" Opens in Los Angeles: An Inconvenient Review

    With his media mogul producer and capitalist-friendly marketing Moore is receiving "more" reviews than he bargained for.

    Michael Moore's new movie "Capitalism: A Love Story" is being criticized for using capitalism and the media to promote "anti-capitalism" ideals. Moore's movie is being co-financed and distributed domestically by Overture Films, which is part of John Malone's Liberty Media. Liberty, reports Joe Flint of the Los Angeles Times,  also owns satellite broadcaster DirecTV, and recently took a stake in Sirius XM.

    If the idea that Michael Moore has teamed up with a media magnate weren't ironic enough, Malone's company Sirius XM was the subject of the financial documentary "Stock Shock" which highlights the company as one of the most manipulated stocks in the market. Investors in Sirius XM lost over 95% of the value of their shares in the company when it nearly went bankrupt earlier this year due to alleged illegal naked short selling, and some contend, internal corporate greed. John Malone was touted as the satellite company's white knight for saving it from ruin at the 11th hour with a loan of several hundred million dollars, but not everyone agrees.

    "Stock Shock" interviewed disgruntled investors like Michael Hartleib, founder of SaveSirius.org, who insist that Malone virtually swindled the company away from shareholders when he was awarded a 40% stake in the billion dollar company for the last minute loan. Hartleib asks, "How was this management team able to steal forty percent of our company without we, the true owners of this company, having a vote or a seat at the table? How was Mr. Malone given forty percent of our company for free?" Many journalists are asking, "is this the producer Michael Moore hand picked?" Newsday's John Anderson comments that Moore provides "enough convenient logic to bury the Federal Reserve."

    "Stock Shock"  is a new release on DVD and is available at Amazon.com or stockshockmovie.com.