It's become easy to dismiss Michael Moore as just a partisan political firebrand, especially if you follow his occasional Twitter rants, but when he puts his mind to a subject he's capable of moving the national discussion. As the country's most accomplished documentarian he's tackled gun control with his breakout film, Bowling for Columbine, exposed George W. Bush's lies with Fahrenheit 9/11, and gave a gloomy assessment of the healthcare and financial crises with Sicko and Capitalism: A Love Story. Moore's latest film, Where to Invade Next, is like a playlist of his greatest hits, and while it's his most enjoyable, light-hearted doc in years, it also feels like material he's already covered.
Moore went down a doom 'n gloom path for a lot of years, but with Where to Invade Next he's back to having fun with important issues again. The title suggests an indictment of the military industrial complex but it's anything but that. Instead, Moore dreams up a silly premise that remains worthy of a chuckle throughout, that he's been tasked by the U.S. government to "invade" other countries and steal their best ideas. Since the U.S. routinely ranks at the bottom of the charts when it comes to living standards, this gives Moore an easy route to cherry-picking what works elsewhere without looking like he's denigating the U.S., a charge often levied against him. It also gives him cover from those who will complain he's leaving out the negative aspects of these other countries.
Literally planting his flag all across Europe, Moore interviews workers in Italy, who get months of paid vacation and maternity leave, something they can't believe isn't available here. Moore swipes that idea, then jets off to France to investigate their education system, which includes gourmet food for the students, at a much lower cost than we spend here. Each stop is like a mini movie unto itself, with Moore becoming more astonished at every turn. When Moore stops to visit Norway's posh rehabilitative prisons, one wonders if he'll just cut the film and move in himself he's so taken with the idea. But that's kind of the point. Moore's energy and enthusiasm is effective in pinpointing how deeply he cares about the values he feels are missing in America today, and yet can be found elsewhere. There was a time when the idea of a for-profit prison system would have been cause for a national uproar, but now we have them in every state and it's disgusting. In his way, Moore is trying to raise awareness to a number of topics that have been buried for far too long.
That said, Moore's kind of repeating himself here. Every one of these subjects have been visited by Moore in deeper fashion elsewhere. The only difference, and it's a big one, is Moore's jovial, mischievous demeanor, which keeps the film light as it pushes through the overlong 110-minute runtime. Nobody is ever going to accuse him of being an accomplished visual director, but Moore knows how to pick just the right images, he knows how to pick just the right interview subjects (everyone's happy and beautiful and perfect) to get his message across. While Moore's focus is a little scattered, Where to Invade Next is the filmmaker once again pushing for America to reach its full potential, even if that means looking outside our borders for inspiration.
Rating: 3 out of 5