Anti-consumerism film wears thin

  • By Robert Horton Herald Movie Critic
  • Thursday, November 29, 2007 2:51pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Released just in time for the Christmas shopping orgy, “What Would Jesus Buy?” is a cheeky comment on consumerism today. But this documentary isn’t a large-scale essay on the subject; it spotlights one man’s crusade against spending.

That man is the Reverend Billy, aka Bill Talen. Sort of a performance artist-comedian-preacher, the Reverend Billy runs the Church of Stop Shopping, and occasionally agitates on the grounds of a Starbucks or Wal-Mart until he gets banned from the premises.

The film follows him, his wife and church director Savitri D., and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir as they travel cross-country in December 2005. Along the way, they hold Stop Shopping services, protest at consumer meccas, and point their biodiesel-fueled buses in the direction of — where else? — Disneyland.

“What Would Jesus Buy?” almost self-destructs after about a half-hour, because the Reverend Billy’s shtick is fairly thin, and the road trip becomes somewhat repetitive.

It recovers somewhat, especially during Reverend Billy’s visit with a small-town haberdasher, whose charming Main Street business has been destroyed by the presence of a Wal-Mart nearby. The quality products he carries — which happen to be made in America — can’t compete with cheap goods imported from China and other sweatshop-friendly countries.

A road accident adds some unscripted drama to the cross-country trek, but doesn’t deflect the Stop Shoppers. Things perk up when the crew reaches Disneyland, where Reverend Billy must slip inside in disguise (his reputation as a pest precedes him).

Directed by Rob VanAlkamade and partly produced by “Super Size Me” guy Morgan Spurlock, “What Would Jesus Buy?” preaches a gospel of anti-consumerism, and it’s got a point. In one sideplot, a family goes into debt to buy their children the grossest kind of toys for Christmas, and the sense of wretched excess is intense.

“This isn’t what Jesus had in mind for us,” says the Reverend, although it’s hard to get a read on what the Reverend Billy actually thinks. He looks a little like Kurt Russell with a bad dye job, and he’s got some good one-liners,

But as a mock performer, Reverend Billy doesn’t quite pull it off, as ingenious as his silliness sometimes is. He’s no Borat, for sure. And “A Charlie Brown Christmas” carried a lot of the same messages, decades ago.

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