When Michael Moore stood on stage at the Princess of Wales Theatre after the world premiere of his new documentary at the Toronto International Film Festival on the eve of the 9/11 anniversary, he mentioned that his crew had jokingly titled his film, Mike’s Happy Movie. That’s probably a better title than Where to Invade Next, which makes the movie sound like it’s going to be about the Military Industrial Complex, or something similar. Instead, the film really is Moore being mostly happy about things. Naturally, Moore is happy because he didn’t film any scenes of his new film in the United States.
The premise of Where to Invade Next is incredibly hokey: Basically, Moore is “invading” a series of countries in an effort to steal some of their better ideas and bring them back to the United States. For example, some of the poorest schools in France have wonderful school lunch programs that cost less than the terrible school lunches that are provided in U.S. public schools. Another example: In Portugal, drug use has been decriminalized, which has resulted in less drug use and a lot fewer non-violent people in Portuguese jails.
Look, as you’re reading this, you already have an opinion on Michael Moore one way or another. Nothing I say is going to sway your opinion; I’d suspect that opinion is ironclad by this point. Personally, I find Moore to be a filmmaker I often agree with politically, yet he’s still somehow one who has the ability to irritate me because there’s never any give in what he’s trying to say. In other words, his movies wind up preaching to choirs instead of actually changing minds. For all the good points Moore is capable of making, he loses too many people in hyperbole. A glaring example in this movie: At one moment, he’s praising Norway’s prison system for its relaxed treatment of prison inmates (at one point, we see a happy-looking prisoner wearing normal clothes, doing a wheelie on a bike down a dirt road). The next, he’s telling us how great Iceland is for the harsh prison sentences all the banking executives received for their role in that country’s financial collapse. This all left me mouthing to the screen, “But you just said…”
What Moore has basically done with Where to Invade Next is take a dozen ideas he seems to have had floating around his head – none of them being substantial enough to sustain a movie on their own – and smush them all together into one movie… clumsily strung together by this whole “invading” nonsense. Moore tries his darndest to make all the different subjects seem like they relate to each other, but Where to Invade Next really does fly off in so many directions, it’s hard to feel there’s any real narrative here.
But the thing is, a few of these segments are legitimately great. Standardized tests in U.S. school systems are a real problem. And Moore dives deep into the notion that countries and financial institutions have fared better when run by women. In Moore’s post-film comments, he compares the 80-20 ration of male to female current U.S. Senators to apartheid. (Again, here, Moore has a valid concern and a great point to make, but using the word “apartheid” is going to get cheers from the people already on his side and lose the people who may have been listening. This will always be a frustration with Michael Moore.) Regardless, this section of his film is brilliant, but it comes so late in what is already a long movie, I’m afraid this message might get lost after what has already been a long list of grievances. At almost two hours, by the end, I started to get that feeling I used to get when my parents would sit me down and list off everything I’ve been doing wrong or slacking on. By the end, it’s just, “Okay, I get it! I am awful! We all agree! Can we stop now?”
Again, if you like Moore, you will like Where to Invade Next. (The Toronto crowd was very pro-Moore, giving him a standing ovation after the premiere.) If you don’t like Moore, you will not like Where to Invade Next. If you’re somewhere in-between, you will probably find something in at least some of the topics covered that means something to you – there’s a lot going on here. This is a happier Moore. He’s interviewing mostly people he agrees with – and there are a lot of funny moments – but that doesn’t mean his bite is gone. Moore’s bite is front and center (yes, to the point of being grating at times), but no matter his delivery, a lot of what’s in Where to Invade Next is too important to ignore.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.