After taking six years off, Michael Moore has returned in far more gentler and playful form than either his most sincere fans or harshest critics are used to. He’s quipped that his crew referred to Where to Invade Next as “Mike’s Happy Movie,” during production and it’s easy to see why. Rather than a bitter attack on American ideals, this doc feels like a gentle push for progress. There’s still plenty of ground for those who despise the director to dismiss it all as a call for socialism, but watching the movie oddly doesn’t raise any of the angry feelings he usually courts from viewers. The doc is probably the closest thing to a romp Michael Moore has made since Canadian Bacon.
The title might suggest that Moore has decided to tear down the American war machine, but the movie is actually more of a politicized travel log. Moore and his crew visit various countries around the world to see various social systems that help their people in areas where America notoriously struggles. At first the subject matter is a little goofy, mostly to give Moore and his interview subjects an opportunity to deliver comedic double takes (it’s actually surprising no one squeezes in a spit take) in response to the dichotomy between what he’s filming and what it’s like at home.
The first two stops are Italy and France. In the boot shaped land, Moore marvels at how Italians get 8 weeks paid vacation for unionized workers as well as 5 months maternity leave and two hour lunch breaks. Sure the section ignores the constant political unrest in the country and plays into stereotypes, but damned if it’s not funny and enlightening. Next up is France, where Moore shows how even the poorest schools have gourmet, multi-course lunch programs run by chefs, city officials, and nutritionists. The looks on the kids’ and cooks’ faces when they see pictures of the deep fried mystery mush served to American high schoolers says it all. Every time Moore finds a service he likes, he plants an American flag to claim it for the homeland and as you’d expect his interviewees stare at the flag awkwardly for a second to squeeze in one more gentle gag.
As the movie keeps trucking on the issues get a little more serious. Trips to Slovenia to learn about colleges with free tuition, Germany to see how they deal with their historical horrors, Norway to visit friendly prisons, and Iceland to see women in political power, come with Moore’s more traditional impassioned rants about failings in American society filled with stock footage montages. So, there are still bursts of his usual anger and satire, which can feel both impassioned and slightly misplaced. The filmmaker may have softened a little with age, but his rage still pops up if arguments need to be hammered home with force.
When the doc is at it’s best, Where to Invade Next is hilarious and heart-warming. At it’s worst, it can feel like Moore is stretching to make a point. Though all of his movies tend to feel a little episodic and rambling, his best ones at least have a clear thesis at the end of the rainbow. Here, the final argument feels a bit muddled. It’s basically saying, “other countries do things better, why not us?” without much time spent exploring the costs of those services or the other problems those countries are ignoring. At two hours, the movie can also feel like it’s stretching to include all of the globetrotting adventures. You can’t help but wonder if this idea might have worked better as a web or TV series that could have dedicated entire episodes to all of the issues Moore has been stockpiling during his time off. It feels like everything was combined into a movie because that was the format the director wanted to work in rather than the format that suited the material.
Still, it’s nice to see Moore back after an extended absence and in a more playful mode. It’s likely the funniest thing he’s made in many years and that humor never feels like it’s forced or at the expense of his subjects. It’s all a fairly natural fit. Where To Invade Next might be a lark that’s hardly Moore’s best movie, but it is an improvement on the troubled Sicko and Capitalism: A Love Story, so clearly that break from filmmaking did him some good. Hopefully this is a practice run returning to filmmaking before embarking on a more serious and focused doc though because as nice as it is to see Michael play again, it would be even better to see him playing hardball.
Click here for all of our TIFF 2015 coverage thus far or peruse links to our reviews below:
- 45 Years
- Black Mass
- The Danish Girl
- Green Room
- I Smile Back
- The Iron Giant: Signature Edition
- Kill Your Friends
- The Lobster
- The Martian