Here's a shocker. Michael Moore thinks capitalism is evil.
Look, can there be any remaining moviegoer who doesn't know what to expect from Michael Moore, the provocateur and self-annointed spokesman for the left? Moore's shtick has become so familiar that reviews of his movies -- his latest is Capitalism: A Love Story -- almost seem superfluous. Moore's supporters will laugh on cue; his detractors will comb the movie for factual inaccuracies, and another Moore "documentary'' will come and go, leaving little in its turbulent wake.
This time, Moore makes capitalism his target, proclaiming that our vaunted free enterprise system is morally bankrupt. Moore finds several Catholic clergymen to endorse his evaluation of our faltering economic system, including two bishops. As if trying to upstage faith-bassd critics on the right, he invokes the name of Jesus. Moore's Jesus loved the poor, warned the rich that they'd have a difficult time getting into heaven and never would have played the market.
Is our economy more complicated than Moore paints it? Of course. Are there brutal inequities that result from our economic system? Without doubt. Are there laughs in Capitalism: A Love Story? Yes. Among other things, Moore knows how to edit for yuks, and no one's better at finding footage that makes his point.
Moore also serves up sights and sounds that will put a lump to your throat, notably sequences in which poor and middle class people endure forfeiture of their homes. It's also instructive to listen to the surviving kin of workers whose employers swelled their coffers by taking out life insurance policies on the departed relatives. These policies have been dubbed "dead peasant'' insurance, a designation that should induce nausea in anyone who works for one of these companies or buys their products. An employee dies; the company collects. Can there be a more ghoulish way to pad revenue streams?
As befits a scattershot effort, plenty in Capitalism connects. Watching workers at Chicago's Republic Windows and Doors -- they occupied their shuttered plant until the company paid what it owned them -- is an inspiring example of what can happen when workers join forces.
I don't know if the movie's hits and misses are equal in number, but Capitalism: A Love Story fires off some awfully wobbly arrows. Perhaps to show how far removed from reality the current financial system has strayed, Moore introduces supposed experts who can't explain complex financial instruments such as derivatives. Maybe they should have headed for Wikipedia where they could have found a serviceable enough definition:
"A derivative is a financial instrument that is derived from some other asset, index, event, value or condition (known as the underlying asset). Rather than trade or exchange the underlying asset itself, derivative traders enter into an agreement to exchange cash or assets over time based on the underlying asset. A simple example is a futures contract: an agreement to exchange the underlying asset at a future date."
Moore evidently couldn't find anyone capable of saying that. I first learned what a derivative was from my wife, who gave me a succinct explanation.
You get the idea. Moore can seem more interested in scoring points than in offering cogent explanations, an approach that helps if you believe that the U.S. is in decline. Moore begins by comparing life in the U.S. to the final days of the Roman Empire. Is that where we are? Really? Or are we at a point where U.S. power in the world is being redefined?
Actually, Moore's politics -- if you take a step back from the rhetoric and jokes -- are pretty conventional. He's pro union. He's pro certain Democrats. He doesn't like big business and opposes the privatization of functions better served by government. As an example, he cites a privately run youth detention center where the quest for profit led to judicial corruption and the incarceration of harmless teenagers.
Does it mean anything when Moore, as he does at the end of the movie, rings the New York Stock Exchange building with crime-scene tape? Only if taken as a kind of live-action political cartoon. I don't know if Moore can draw, but he might have made a great political cartoonist because he knows how to make a point succinctly and visually.
Moore finishes with a call to action. He wants his audience to join him. But in what activity and for what purpose? Oh well, maybe it doesn't matter. Moore's always been better at stirring the pot than analyzing its ingredients. Unlike a lot of his contemporaries he's not afraid to bite down hard, but that doesn't mean he hasn't bitten off more than he or anyone else possibily could chew in a two-hour movie.