Imagine a cross between an illustrated standup comedy routine and an anecdotal cinema verite documentary, and you’re ready for “The Big One,” Michael Moore’s ruthlessly amusing and ruefully insightful followup to his popular “Roger and Me.” This time, instead of stalking GM chairman Roger Smith in and around Flint, Mich., the portly working-class satirist takes his act on the road to examine the underside of America’s “economic recovery.” Pic is too long and self-indulgent for its own good, and would benefit from some editing-room downsizing. Overall, however, “Big One” is effectively on-target as it examines the current socioeconomic zeitgeist. It should spark some spirited op-ed debates — and, more pragmatically, sell an impressive number of tickets.
In the opening minutes, Moore establishes the pic’s tone of disarmingly cheery drollery and sugar-coated outrage. Addressing a college audience, he recalls a tongue-in-cheek experiment he conducted during the 1996 U.S. presidential primary season. To see “if politicians would accept money from anyone,” he established bank accounts for fictitious organizations and sent $100 checks to major candidates. Much to his delight, Pat Buchanan’s campaign was the first to snap at the bait, and cashed a check from Abortionists for Buchanan.
The rest of “The Big One” follows Moore on a publisher-sponsored tour to promote his hectoring screed against corporate rogues and manipulators, “Downsize This!” Moore agrees to make the tour as a pretext for his real agenda: filming a sort of guerrilla docu about the devastating effects of downsizing and factory closings.
In each city he visits, Moore and his skeletal camera crew slip away from the local “media escort” long enough to raise questions and conduct interviews. Moore wants to find “just one CEO” who will explain to him, on camera, why thousands of workers are being laid off despite billion-dollar profits. Not surprisingly, he is none-too-politely turned away by tight-lipped PR reps and stern-faced security guards each time he pays an unannounced visit to some corporate bigwig.
Along the way, Moore finds newly fired workers (and, in some cases, hopeful union organizers) who are more than willing to complain about being left high and dry by the ’90s version of trickle-down economics. Employees at a Payday candy factory in Centralia, Ill., are understandably upset by the prospect of being laid off for being “too productive.” (To sustain their high profits, Payday executives plan to open a new plant outside the United States, where wages are lower.) Moore hammers home the absurdity of the situation by getting a Payday spokeswoman to more or less admit that, had the workers been less productive, the factory would remain open a little longer.
The shifting of U.S. jobs to Mexico and Asia is a recurring theme throughout “The Big One.” (The title, incidentally, is Moore’s proposed name change for the U.S.) Again and again, Moore cites examples of companies that discharge the very workers who helped them reap the record profits that can be maintained only by work-force cutbacks. Company reps claim the cutbacks are needed if they want to remain “competitive.” Moore is skeptical: “If it’s just about making a profit,” he wonders aloud at one point, “why doesn’t General Motors sell crack?”
At another point, Moore notes that TWA is using low-paid California prison inmates — including convicted killers — to provide info to callers on the airline’s toll-free telephone line. That should be kept in mind, Moore warns, the next time you’re tempted to talk rudely to a TWA rep while making a flight reservation.
Moore takes a scattershot approach to aiming his folksy tirades, targeting everything from the Borders bookstore chain (whose workers are starting to unionize) to Pillsbury (which receives, according to “The Big One,” $11 million in “corporate welfare” to promote products in Third World countries).
Pic works best when Moore is interacting with other people — Studs Terkel, Garrison Keillor and Nike CEO Phil Knight are among the notables who make cameo appearances — and seems padded when it dwells on Moore’s frequently repetitive monologues.
On a technical level, “The Big One” is, perhaps inevitably, only adequate. Most of the pic was shot by video-camera operators on the run — and sometimes on the sly. The tape-to-film transfer is wildly uneven, with some segments discomfortingly blurry. And yet, for all that, “The Big One” is razor-sharp while making provocative points. Even as it plays for laughs, it plays for keeps.