Friday, April 18, 2008

"Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?" -- * *

A rambling comedic analysis of various tensions in the Middle East, Morgan Spurlock's "Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?," a follow-up to his surprise hit "Super Size Me," never seems to figure out what it wants to be, and as a result, ends up not really being much of anything. Despite a wealth of possibilities attached to the subject matter, the mustachioed documentarian chooses to play dumb, pander to his blue collar demo, and make simplistic "duh" points and mezzo-mezzo jokes. Whether the aimless feel was intentional (doubtful) or not, you keep waiting for Spurlock to arrive at some kind of conclusion or make an interesting observation, but the most he's able to muster by the film's close is "Hey, Muslims are just like us!"

I don't think it's necessarily a bad idea to approach this content from a comedic perspective, but rather than use humor as a way to amusingly deconstruct the state of affairs, Spurlock just gives us high-concept stuff like a CGI Bin Laden dancing to "U Can't Touch This" and a bomb-defusing robot talking like R2-D2. These silly, pointless interludes turn out to be the most inspired parts of the movie simply because they're the segments where Spurlock seems to be most in his element and actually have a decent idea of what he wants to do. The opening credit sequence, laid over a CG-video game "Mortal Kombat"-style fight between Spurlock and the titular terrorist, is particularly well-done. It's when Spurlock leaves his simplistic comfort zones that things get a little bit rockier, alternating between unfocused, uninteresting or outright offensive (a sequence displaying him in Muslim garb in a mall as a sight gag is in particularly poor taste).

During his exploration of foreign attitudes towards the U.S., his filmmaking manipulations are most apparent. He links together interview sequence after interview sequence of Muslims saying they looove the American people, they just hate the American government. Surely he must have found ONE person who said they weren't a big fan of America, no? This segment, apart from being repetitive and not offering much in the way of insight, is the most emphatic deployment of the tactic Spurlock seems to have taken throughout the filmmaking process: decide on conclusions, and prove them later. This method also pokes its head during much of the interview sequences where we see our on-screen narrator asking subjects baity questions like "What do you think of people who commit atrocities in the name of Islam?" He also, once again, employs his Michael Moore-esque faux-naive/condescending narration, which practically screams "this is a movie for you dumb people!"

I'll grant that people who are as uninformed about U.S. history and foreign policy as Spurlock pretends to be will probably find this film fairly enlightening (if they bother to see it); for example, a nicely done animated sequence very simply explains the United States' intricate relationships with foreign dictators in a fairly palatable manner for those who know nothing about it. But while I admire the effort of putting out a well-packaged documentary that makes non-fiction films accessible for average Joes (like both Spurlock and Moore have succeeded in doing in the past), it's hard to ignore that the film itself is wildly unfocused and doesn't really have much to say.The only two genuinely compelling segments of the film are the ones that don't appear to be carefully mapped out or planned. About halfway through the film, Spurlock travels to Israel, and while attempting to conduct man-on-the-street interviews, finds himself being violently pushed around by a group of Hassidic Jews calling him 'filth.' The other, by far the most interesting sequence, is one where Spurlock is permitted to interview two Egyptian high school students as they give clearly rehearsed answers and nervously eye their instructors whenever the questions get even slightly provocative.

Obviously, no one expects this movie to end with Spurlock finding Osama Bin Laden (if he had, we probably would have heard about it), but there's still a wealth of unfulfilled potential here. At first, it seems the filmmaker is going to, for fun, see how far he can get by investigating the whereabouts of Bin Laden, showing the hypothetical possibilities if our government actually put effort into finding him. Then it backs off of this concept and becomes a look of how most citizens in the Middle East view America/Americans. Then it shifts into an analysis of our country's support for foreign dictators. And the cycle continues. By trying to tackle all of these ideas in fits and starts, Spurlock half-asses all of them, and fails to offer any fresh, legitimate insight on any of them. "Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?" attempts to give the everyman a probing voice on a subject generally confined to intellectual filmmakers, but ultimately it just proves that perhaps such weighty matters should be left in the hands of the Alex Gibneys and Errol Morrises of the world, not the Morgan Spurlocks.

"Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?" opens in 100 theaters in major markets nationwide today.


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