Manufacturing Comedy

Cheap tricks and free advertising: Phil Knight and Michael Moore in The Big One.

The Big One
Uptown Theatre, starts Friday

The title of Michael Moore's new documentary, The Big One, refers to a joke he made in his 1996 book Downsize This!: "The Big One" ought to be the new name for the U.S.A. Moore apparently thought it was a very funny joke. So funny, in fact, that he embarked on a 47-city book tour last year to share it and other nuggets of his subversive blue-collar humor with adoring audiences and media personalities nationwide. But why let a good joke stop there? Why not set up a camera and record the hilarity as Moore tools across the country on the aforementioned book tour, repeating the joke to the aforementioned adoring audiences and media personalities? And along the way, why not do our bit for the common man, raiding a few corporate headquarters in the inimitable Michael Moore fashion?

There are plenty reasons why not, of course, and The Big One summarizes them all quite nicely. A good portion of the film consists of nothing more than extended scenes of Moore rehashing gags from Downsize This! before approving audiences, replete with reaction shots of laughing crowds. To be fair, Moore does happen to be a genuinely funny guy, which makes The Big One not so much a bad movie as a distasteful one. For now anyway, his film is the closest we've come to knowing what Manufacturing Consent would have been like if Noam Chomsky were paunchy, funny, a bit more outgoing, and fully in charge of his crew.

Offering himself up as the hero of The Big One, Moore goes after two sets of villains. First, there are the various corporations that, as Moore never tires of repeating, are laying off thousands and moving operations to Mexico or elsewhere at a time of record profits. This is the single clearest point in the film, and it approaches success when driving that point home. In a convincing indictment of conventional economic wisdom (boom times and champagne corks a-poppin'), Moore finds companies in virtually every city on the tour that have laid off workers while reporting a profit over the last few years (Johnson Controls in Milwaukee, Pay Day in Centralia, Illinois, Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, etc.). He sandbags the headquarters of these companies Roger & Me-style to present their CEOs with "Excellence in Downsizing" awards and oversized cardboard checks for 80 cents to pay for the first hour of the first worker at a plant that's been moved to Mexico.

But the real scene-stealers in these encounters are the straight men--the poor company flacks who have to descend from the 25th floor to the lobby so they can politely refuse to answer Moore's questions or accept his gifts, staring down his camera with the soulless expressions of the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Moore is well aware of their value to the film's comedy, remaining wonderfully good-natured and cheery as he entices his adversaries to offer up some more lines of PR-speak ("The company has to stay competitive!") before security shows him out. In the film's funniest moment, Moore asks two Procter & Gamble suits a few pointed questions about the company's thousands of job cuts and billions in profit. Then he admits to being a devoted Tide user, complimenting their color-safe bleach and riffing on how he's always in trouble with his wife for not separating his lights and darks. The poor flacks are obviously distressed; the last thing they expect from someone like Moore is to be treated like a human being.

Unfortunately, he doesn't extend the same courtesy to The Big One's other villains: his publisher's "guides" from Random House, who've been dispatched to take care of him at each stop on the tour. In a shamelessly disingenuous attempt to manufacture a little drama for those scenes that don't show him at his corporate-raiding best, Moore has invented the fiction that those stiffs at Random would be horrified to learn that the book tour is now a movie. Now, come on: Why wouldn't a publisher be thrilled to have a free movie tie-in to help move their paperbacks? Well, someone's got to be the heavy. At the film's lowest point, Moore stoops to borrowing a gag from Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen, who used to get rid of his tour handlers by sending them out for cigarettes and then telling hotel security not to let them back in no matter what. So Moore pulls this one on his Chicago guide, a chirpy young woman who thinks he's an "inspiration to us all." Her tears are a means to an end: Moore has himself another joke.

The Big One concludes with a bizarre meeting in Portland, Oregon, between Moore and Phil Knight, CEO of Nike. Seems Knight actually sought out Moore for some reason; rest assured that the PR folks at Nike who allowed this to happen have been properly downsized. The filmmaker proposes that Knight build a factory in Moore's hometown of Flint, Michigan (all of Nike's shoes are currently manufactured overseas). Knight, looking flushed and confused, keeps repeating that "Americans don't want to make shoes"--as if the phrase actually means something. After Moore accuses Knight of employing 12-year-olds in Indonesia, Knight counters that Nike's youngest employees are only 14--as if the difference actually means something. Eventually, after his repeated refusals to set up shop in good ol' Flint, Knight does agree to match Moore's $10,000 donation to the Flint school system. Moore's last entreaty to Knight is, "We're waiting for a happy ending to this movie." By this point, even Moore's fans would likely be grateful for any sort of ending. Come to think of it, a beginning and middle would have been nice, too.

 
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