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REVIEW | Simplistically Charming "Capitalism" Doesn't Quite Add Up

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire September 23, 2009 at 4:36AM

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.
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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.

This article is related to: Documentary, In Theaters







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