Yet another testament to the nonfiction legacy of Michael Moore, “Stink!” embraces the documentary template established by the “Roger & Me” and “Bowling for Columbine” director to alternately exasperating and insightful ends. A look into the fragrance industry and the harmful chemicals it peddles to kept-in-the-dark consumers, Jon J. Whelan’s film has almost no personality of its own, instead hewing so closely to the Moore playbook that it can’t help but feel like an assembly-line work. While its formal tactics are often questionable, its arguments regarding toxic chemical pollutants found in everyday products are lucid and reasonable to the point of being inarguable, and go a long way toward giving it a shot at setting itself apart from the formulaic activist-doc pack upon its Dec. 5 theatrical expansion.
As with most of Moore’s pre-“Where to Invade Next” features, “Stink!” finds its director assuming the spotlight, initially by recounting his concern over a pair of scented pajamas purchased for his daughters for Christmas at a Justice store. This compels Whelan to call various bigwigs at the tween-targeting retailer in order to hopefully deduce the chemicals used in their production. Whelan depicts himself as a just-like-you parent merely concerned about his kids’ well-being, but this intro is quite obviously a calculated charade. Whelan knows he’ll get no answers from this staged-for-the-cameras phone inquiry, and early home-movie footage of his deceased wife makes it clear that she died of cancer, which Whelan blames on toxic chemicals — and thus indicates that he’s after a far larger condemnation of their destructive ubiquity.
Consequently, the filmmaker’s portrait of himself as just a concerned citizen reeks of manipulative affectation, and the ensuing material confirms that suspicion. “Stink!” vacillates between Whelan’s man-on-the-street reportage, human-interest vignettes (in this case, a high schooler who suffers from deadly anaphylactic shock attacks caused by Axe body spray), interviews with consumer-advocacy and health organization experts, and cutesy graphical interludes that make the raft of facts, figures and data about phthalates and endocrine disrupters easy to digest. Except, of course, that many of the revelations proffered, including the toxic components found in newborn infants’ umbilical cords, are apt to leave one sick to their stomach.
To say the film’s construction is unadventurous would be an understatement. And that structural and aesthetic familiarity goes some way toward sabotaging its underlying case, primarily because it makes Whelan’s cause seem like another in an exceedingly long line of anti-corporate, pro-environment grassroots rallying cries — often driven more by passion and scare tactics than logic or evidence — that flood the market on a monthly basis. By the time Whelan is heading out to local legislative meetings to confront lobbyists for the American Chemistry Council, a trade association run by CEO Cal Dooley that throws its financial weight around Washington in an effort to curb chemical transparency measures, the proceedings have devolved into tired Moore mimicry, albeit with more heartstring-pulling courtesy of Whelan’s tale about the tragic loss of his wife.
Nonetheless, though it feels like a been-here, done-that effort in many regards, “Stink!” is bolstered by the fact that it convincingly makes its bedrock contention. As explicated in horrifying detail, consumer manufacturers don’t have to list any chemicals that are used for a product’s odor; rather, they can just list “fragrances” on their labels, and neither the EPA nor the FDA can do a thing about it, all because such potentially toxic stews are protected as proprietary “trade secret” recipes by 1976’s Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). What that means is that no one has any idea what’s been used to create shampoos, baby powders, floor cleaners or any other common merchandise unless they have them independently tested at a laboratory — which, as when Whelan does just that with his daughters’ Justice pajamas, often results in discoveries of flame retardants, carcinogens and other terrifying elements.
For all its gimmickry, then, the film ultimately promotes a very simple two-pronged solution: Force companies to disclose the ingredients in their goods, and reform TSCA so that harmful chemicals can be banned from further use. That, in turn, would empower everyone with the ability to make informed decisions about the health risks they choose to assume, and provide substantial government protection for the population at large. No matter its cinematic derivativeness, “Stink!’s” outcry against continuing to use the American citizenry as chemistry experiment guinea pigs carries with it the unassailable whiff of common sense.