“We have ways of making you pronounce the letter ‘o'”
Can you fathom a world where Michael Moore didn’t make documentaries? How would the liberal slant be passed on from generation to generation without his exploitation of poor Americans caught inside scripted “exposés” of corrupt governments and every Constitutional Right besides the one giving him freedom to make a living? Yes, I know I’m being hyperbolic—although also pretty much spot-on—but such a world was a possibility had his second film Canadian Bacon been a success. Fresh off the acclaim garnered by his debut Roger & Me (six years, a PBS short, and a TV doc series later), Moore tried his hand at fictional satire by lambasting Republicans, overzealous patriots, and our clean neighbors to the north before critical derision helped him realize “non-fiction” was his best bet for fame. He never looked back.
I, however, have and sadly not to very good results. This was the second time I’ve seen the Niagara Falls-set film and while I still found some bits hilarious, the experience proved quite a bore. Moore goes so far with his humor that any credible commentary on the state of affairs post-Cold War are lost in its absurdity. He mocks Canada for their stereotypical kindness and skewers Americans for their shoot first, ask questions later mentality, but refuses to give the audience a grounding force. We can’t blindly align with one side over the other because neither is portrayed as effective or sound. Moore simply wants us to languish in the middle as pushovers too afraid of power or a lack thereof that we constantly react without anywhere to go. So it’s pretty much par for the course.
Sticking to what he knows best, Moore sets Canadian Bacon against the backdrop of a big business military sympathizer laying off a slew of blue collar employees to maintain its bottom line. Rather than paint these unfortunate souls as heroes of the common man, however, he shows them as ignorant buffoons malleable to whatever the media feeds them. In some respects the main satirical bent of this film is to parody exactly what his later work Bowling for Columbine and Fahrenheit 9/11 do. He became the same sort of media establishment preying on the fears of a populace caught at a crossroads in its nation’s history by turning what could have been an intelligent conversation into a salacious account that railroaded by screaming the loudest and editing together the story he set out to create rather than objective truth.
That’s not to say he’s the first or last to do so by any means. If anything that attitude could be listed in the dictionary next to “American Dream”. In fact, the way he writes his President—played with childlike glee and insufferable incompetence by Alan Alda—is pitch perfect. Here’s a guy with a moral goal to make the world peaceful before realizing his term as Head of State is seen as one of inaction when the lack of war and its financial revenue stream only provides unemployment. America loves carnage, wants to feel like Big Man on Campus in helping to create it, and willingly does whatever’s necessary so long as it can write history accordingly. The population will do and be whatever popular opinion suggests and Chief of Staff Stu Smiley (Kevin Pollak) knows it.
So, when Russia refuses to pantomime another five decades of tension, Stu turns his sights on Canada. It’s a thing of genius that only takes a couple well-placed lies and maple syrup invasion graphics on the news to get everyone in a tizzy. What he never could have hypothesized, however, was the misguided bravery of a handful of imbeciles serving as Sheriff and nepotistic Deputies on the border. Enraged by the stories lead anchor and “voice of America” Edwin S. Simon (Stanley Anderson) orates, Bud Boomer (John Candy), Honey (Rhea Perlman), Roy Boy (Kevin J. O’Connor), and Kabral (Bill Nunn) pre-empt a potential strike by invading themselves. One littering prank later leads to Honey being kidnapped, America’s elite Omega Force getting unleashed, World War III risking to ignite, and Bud arriving at ground zero: Toronto, Ontario.
While far from Dr. Strangelove, I won’t pretend there isn’t a fair share of pointed insight or laugh-out-loud jokes. Rip Torn‘s General Dick Panzer is the epitome of power-hungry military man reveling in leaving piles of bodies in his wake; G.D. Spradlin‘s hubristically smarmy and entitled one-percenter unsurprisingly leverages the lives of millions for their equivalent in state-funded dollars; and both Steven Wright and Dan Aykroyd excel at broadly poking fun at Canadian law enforcement. There are some killer one-liners helped by a stellar comedic cast and what would prove to be star John Candy’s final performance (it was shot first but released after Wagons East). I can therefore see why it’s become a cult classic, but unfortunately can’t look past the shortcomings that make it little more than easy laughs devoid of substance.
It’s all the more disappointing too because there’s potential for greatness. Moore isn’t strong enough as a writer to find the necessary balance, though—something he gets away with in documentary when literally spewing personal politics at the camera rather than telling a story. I applaud the effort and get why so many celebrities took part, but the tonal waves shifting from Naked Gun humor (citizens buying missiles at auction) to witty banter (explaining how profanity must be spray-painted in English and French within Canadian borders) to the smart satire (a government off the rails) is too choppy for my tastes. It’s like three movies in one playing out a single brilliant gag separately in every direction. While you’ll probably enjoy at least one version, you’ll have had more than enough by the time the third comes around.