Michael Moore is a nudger. Rarely content to let facts speak for themselves, he can’t resist sticking his elbow in your side as he makes his points.
One of the reasons Moore was at his most effective with his roaring 2004 polemic “Fahrenheit 9/11” was that he kept himself off screen for much of the film’s furious second half. In general, though, his weakness for broad-brush tactics and heavy-handed jokery hampers his documentary portraits of America gone wrong. Leaving well enough alone isn’t in his make-up — but then he wouldn’t be Michael Moore if he could leave well enough alone.
Moore’s latest is “Where to Invade Next,” a misleadingly titled look overseas. His thesis here is that if America could embrace the social-democratic practices found in European nations (ideas that Moore argues originated in the USA), our people might be better off.
You could argue that Moore’s approach cherry-picks the good things and ignores the problematic; this film mostly skirts the European migrant crisis, for instance. But on the other hand, why not cherry-pick the positive examples? At least it’s a start to the conversation, and Moore is nothing if not a crusader — he wants to change the world, not objectively observe it.
And so he begins in Italy, in one of the film’s most charming episodes. I’m not sure anyone would hold up Italy as an example of societal competence; their cars may be well-oiled machines, but their governments have been prone to breakdowns.
Still, Moore’s subject is human happiness. And the people he interviews look awfully happy: workers with two-hour lunches, regular middle-class folks with many weeks of paid vacation (and paid maternity leave), CEOs with generous attitudes. And everybody dresses so well.
For high-information viewers, these discoveries will not be new (even though Moore does his best to act amazed at each revelation of European largesse). But I always suspect that Moore’s real target is not his fanbase, but people who may not be politically minded or otherwise paying attention.
For those people, it may very well come as a surprise that Europeans who live in those nightmarish socialist democracies we hear about are drawing their full salaries while spending a couple of weeks every summer in the south of France and an annual winter holiday in Spain.
Meanwhile, Americans are pitifully grateful to have two weeks of paid vacation, perhaps a third week if we work hard enough and long enough, although we probably couldn’t afford to go anywhere because of our medical bills.
One of the film’s funniest sequences — and “Where to Invade” is frequently funny — has Moore sitting down with French schoolchildren and showing them photos of the kinds of lunches served to American kids. Quelle horreur, as you would expect.
He travels to Finland to explore that country’s much-vaunted educational system, which excludes homework. (All right, that was a surprise to me. It makes you wonder whether we’re enamored of homework as an educational method just because it’s always been around, a vestige of the Puritan work ethic.)
Among Moore’s dumber tactics is the repeated gesture of planting an American flag in his interview subjects’ countries, “claiming” the territory on behalf of the United States. This half-baked idea feels like something left over from an early version of the concept, and it gives the movie its oddly inflammatory title.
Moore has always been canny about pacing his films so they build to a strong climax, and “Where to Invade” makes Iceland its final stop. The choice allows Moore to build a case about a country that has recovered from the financial shocks of the last decade, elected a stand-up comedian as mayor of Reykjavik, put some of its weasel bankers in jail, and installed women in the top echelons of government.
By this point, nobody will think Michael Moore is just talking about Iceland, or any other European nation. His subject is America, and Moore remains both agitator and schoolmarm on the subject. “Where to Invade Next” is undeniably entertaining, but make no mistake — we’ve been given homework.
“Where to Invade Next” (3 stars)
Michael Moore’s new documentary is a misleadingly titled jaunt through European nations whose socialist-democratic policies have resulted in what Moore feels are joys that Americans are denied. His usual broad-brush tactics are in place, but Moore scores some amusing points along the way.
Rating: R, for language, nudity
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Guild 45th, Meridian