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Talk about maladroit planning. Several weeks ago, I invited a friend to join me for a morning press screening of The Big One, Michael Moore’s follow-up to his darkly comic 1989 documentary, Roger & Me. I suggested that we have lunch afterwards at the Carlton Hotel’s Lespinasse, the most expensive restaurant in town. As someone who considers Chinese carryout a splurge, I was curious to see (and taste) how the other 2 percent lives. The mismatch of film and repast turned out to be as disastrous as sending Karl Marx on a blind date with Imelda Marcos.
The cinematic portion of our outing proved vastly superior to its culinary sequel. Continuing in the ironic, muckraking tradition of his widely praised debut feature, Emmy Award-winning television series TV Nation, and best-selling book Downsize This!, Moore blows the whistle on corporate America’s unconscionable policy of terminating loyal, productive workers at a time of record profits. In the last presidential election, the major political candidates distanced themselves from this hot-potato issue, dropping it in the waiting lap of Pat Buchanan, who exploited it to gain credibility he could not otherwise have obtained. Moore properly reclaims corporate downsizing as a populist concern, addressing the subject in the same serio-comic tone that made Roger & Me the all-time highest grossing nonconcert documentary.
Enlarging the phallic, bad-boy bawdiness of his 1997 book’s title, The Big One chronicles Moore’s 47-city cross-country tour to promote Downsize This! At nearly every stop, he and his camera crew conduct gonzo raids on corporations in search of CEOs willing to discuss the inequity of laying off workers while profits soar. After a string of failures—fatuous double-talk by company publicists culminating in expulsion by security guards—he finally connects with Nike Chairman Phil Knight, but their encounter, albeit cordial, fails to elicit the admission Moore seeks: that corporations will sacrifice anyone and anything to the bottom line.
In each city, Moore is greeted by Random House “media escorts,” a series of anxious, interchangeable ash-blondes, and is taken to bookstore appearances where he delivers monologues and answers audience questions. Using comedy as a subversive tactic, he focuses on the working class’s exclusion from the present economic “miracle.” In his talks, he points out that the largest employer in the U.S. is currently Manpower Inc., a temp agency, and that in 1997, CEO salaries rose 174 percent while average employees’ incomes increased by only a few cents. The Nike corporation is singled out for special disapprobation. Posting record profits last year—up 42 percent from 1996—Nike manufactures 99 percent of its shoes outside the U.S. Thirty-six percent of these are made in Indonesia by child laborers working exhausting shifts in inhumane conditions for 40 cents an hour.
After fulfilling his promotional duties, Moore takes to the highway to tilt at corporate windmills. In Centralia, Ill., where a sign proclaims “Every Day Is Payday,” he visits the Leaf factory, where Payday candy bars are made, and talks with protesting workers who are about to be laid off, even though the plant has just announced a $20 million profit. In Iowa, he attends a secret meeting held by Borders bookstore clerks whose efforts at union organization are being thwarted by the company. In Milwaukee, he invades Johnson Controls, an automobile parts manufacturer in the process of closing its plant and relocating to Mexico. In Portland, Ore., the final stop on his tour, he has two meetings with Nike’s Knight, who refuses Moore’s wily offer of a free round-trip air ticket to inspect manufacturing conditions in Indonesia but ultimately agrees to donate $10,000 to purchase computers for public schools in Flint, Mich., the filmmaker’s hometown, which, as demonstrated in Roger & Me, became an economic wasteland after General Motors shut down its automobile production facilities.
Attacked by critics for manipulating chronology in Roger & Me to enhance the precipitousness of Flint’s decline, Moore plays by the rules in his new film, which is bound to disturb any viewer sympathetic to the plight of working people. With his trademark baggy jeans, plaid shirt, and brimmed cap, the tubby, junk food-gobbling filmmaker is hardly the most photogenic bearer of bad news, and at times his egocentricity detracts from his mission. He can’t resist intercutting gratuitous reaction shots of audiences howling at his jokes or including an irrelevant, transparently self-aggrandizing sequence in which he massacres a Bob Dylan song backed by Cheap Trick guitarist Rick Nielsen. Despite his off-putting immodesty, Moore remains an effective spokesman for American workers, wittily and persuasively exposing social and economic injustices.
My unreconstructed socialist pulse was pounding by the fadeout of The Big One, and I suggested to my friend that perhaps lunch at Lespinasse might be rescheduled for a more apposite occasion. But she had made the reservations and taken special pains to dress for the event, so we pressed on. With tax and tip, our check—for two drinks and two unremarkable three-course prix-fixe lunches—came to $146. My minuscule meal would not have dented a Munchkin’s appetite. The appetizer consisted of three tiny, amputated peeky-toe crab extremities surrounded by some crispy bean-thread noodles. The entree, grandiosely dubbed “Variations of Lamb,” was a hockey puck-sized disk of, by generous estimate, two ounces of meat molded atop a bed of bok choy. Dessert was creme brulee, served in a strange white china lidded mini-urn. Although this proved to be the largest, tastiest course, the custard’s cloying richness settled uneasily on my nearly empty stomach.
Exiting Lespinasse, we felt like the workers outside the Payday factory angry, cheated, and insulted. Our only consolation came from realizing that the CEOs who callously ignore their employees’ welfare and the politicians whose protection they’ve bought are themselves ripped off when they line up at the troughs of power and privilege.
The working class is also ill-served by actor-writer-director Edward Burns’ No Looking Back. In his feeble screenplay, Claudia (Lauren Holly), a thirtysomething waitress in an unidentified rundown Northeastern coastal town, shares a comfortable, predictable life with her live-in factory-worker boyfriend Michael (Jon Bon Jovi). Her placid existence is disrupted when Charlie (Burns), her former lover, returns home after a three-year absence. Charlie abandoned Claudia shortly after she aborted their baby but now wants to resume their relationship. Torn between a dull future with adoring Michael and the prospect of escaping to parts unknown with caddish Charlie, she finds herself at a crossroads from which, as the title telegraphs, there can be no retreat.
Abandoning dating comedy—the genre of both his surprise-hit indie debut, The Brothers McMullen, and the more generously budgeted but virtually identical She’s the One—Burns takes a shot at what used to be called “a woman’s picture.” No Looking Back’s diagrammatic plot, stick-figure characters, and stale, fill-in-the-blanks dialogue betray the poverty of his imagination. We’re repeatedly informed that restless Claudia harbors big hopes and dreams, but we are not offered a clue as to what these might be. It never crosses her dim mind (or Burns’) that a woman needs to develop some marketable skill—computer science, feminist theory, fellatio—to escape from financially and spiritually constricting circumstances.
Holly’s vapid performance fails to flesh out an underdeveloped character; in an extended, teary-eyed confessional set piece, her lack of expressive resources is nakedly exposed. It hardly helps that, with her naugahyde complexion, pointy features, and Joker-like, V-shaped smile, she resembles an experimental android codesigned by the Tyrell and Stepford corporations. As in Burns’ previous efforts, the men get a better shake. Though little is required of him, Bon Jovi is affable and endearing, and rangy, broodingly handsome Burns effortlessly conveys cocksure self-absorption.
No Looking Back yearns for poetic realism, but succeeds only in cinematographer Frank Prinzi’s evocative blue-gray images of rainy, weathered Far Rockaway, Queens, locations. Otherwise it’s as lethargic and banal as an afternoon soap. Clearly, Burns intends Claudia’s climactic realization that “It’s OK to take care of yourself,” followed by her solo exodus from town, underscored by Patti Scialfa singing “I Am a Big Girl Now,” as some sort of feminist epiphany. As I watched in utter disbelief, I couldn’t help recalling a line delivered earlier in the movie: “No matter how hard you try, you can’t shine shit.”CP