By titling his latest political documentary Where To Invade Next, Michael Moore overtly mocks the United States' historical need to spread democracy around the world. Taking this destructive and cyclical foreign policy as a finite reality, the filmmaker then reverses the equation by crafting a plan to "invade" countries in Europe and Africa with the hopes of adopting some institutional best practices from their social services sectors. Of course, upon finding a good idea like universal health care in France or free higher education in Slovenia, Moore "claims" it in the name of America.
During a flippant prologue, the scraggly looking filmmaker meets with the Joint Chiefs of Staff (represented here by paper cutouts of their faces) to dictate the strategy of his operation. It's an undeniably sloppy entry point for a film that continues to feel messy as Moore travels the globe interviewing citizens of Italy, Germany, Tunisia and Iceland regarding workers rights, education, finance reform and quality of life.
While well intentioned, Moore's shtick feels stale now more than 10 years removed from Fahrenheit 9/11 and Bowling For Columbine. His flowery voice-over, leading interview questions and stylized graphics work best when the filmmaker himself seems enraged. But Where to Invade Next finds Moore at his most clownish, hamming it up for the camera in an attempt to be subversive. Also, the flimsy nature of his pursuit suggests the film is more of a doodle than a strong indictment of our own social services failures in the 21st century.
A few segments crackle with the kind of complexity needed when juxtaposing the inner workings of different nations. Moore's visit to Norway touches upon its seemingly lax penitentiary system and capped prison sentences, something that comes up during a tough interview with the father of a boy killed in the 2011 mass shooting on the island of Utøya. Despite the horrific tragedy, the man believes his country's system works.
Women's rights and economic oversight are underlining themes during time spent in Iceland. Segments in Germany, France and Italy that highlight shortened workweeks and paid vacation for employees feel less urgent by comparison to the later chapters.
These moments are carefully constructed to establish Europe as a place respectful of its citizens' personal time and wellness. Moore consistently acts as the shocked American interloper who can't believe how green the grass is on the other side of the pond. Even worse, Moore whitewashes his gaze by only interviewing one person of color, confirming that his film only represents one very specific perspective on issues that deserve a more nuanced approach.
This is even more apparent during the film's finale, which finds Moore and an old colleague reminiscing about their time spent participating in the collapse of the Berlin Wall. "I've turned into a crazy optimist," he says. But it's this very frazzled sense of possibility that compromises Moore's skills as an astute purveyor of contradiction. There's so much to each and every one of these stories, but it's easier for him to cram them all into the same easily digestible Cliff's Notes.
The core problem of Where to Invade Next, which opens Friday, Feb. 12, is its self-aggrandizing structure that ends up suffocating many of Moore's finer points under the pressure to entertain the audience. Which is unfortunate, because the film's theme—"The American Dream was alive and well, everywhere but America"—is crucial to understanding how we can get back to living in a society that respects and supports all of its citizenry.