Both the documentary What Would Jesus Buy? and the movement or whatever you want to call it that it depicts strive for laughs in a way that’s supposed to get you to think, but I don’t know that either is ever as successful as it could be, which I found slightly frustrating as I watched. I mean, I’m mostly sympathetic to the core message of the movie, I think the funny stuff is at least somewhat funny, and I’m not opposed to the use of street theater and Abbie Hoffman or Michael Moore type antics to make political or moral activism entertaining, yet somehow this film never fully came together for me. I’m not entirely sure why.
The protagonist is a man who calls himself “Reverend Billy.” He is a preacher for the fictitious (do I really need to say that?) “Church of Stop Shopping.” Accompanied by a full gospel choir, he preaches in the street, in protests at stores and malls, at sympathetic churches, and occasionally door to door, railing against consumerism. The movie takes place during the Christmas season, when his message is most incongruous with what’s going on around him, and most needed.
The southern preacher thing is as hokey as one would expect. It’s sort of interesting and sort of funny that he’s doing it at all, but it’s not some kind of really original, clever, or even notably well-acted performance. It’s run-of-the-mill shtick.
He carries himself like it’s a put-on, and like he’s a little self-conscious about that, and the people he encounters all act as people would who are in on the joke. When he preaches as a guest in a church, the people in the pews grin at each other knowingly. The people in the phony “confessional” know they’re on camera and play along with the routine with a smirk.
Well, of course his message is intentionally presented in a humorous way, and of course everyone involved is aware of that. So what’s my problem with it? I don’t know. There’s just something about the tone that doesn’t work.
There’s not enough of why this message matters to him on a serious level. There’s not enough substance to the message itself–mostly just him shouting out slogans and rhymes.
Indeed, the message even seems to shift as the movie goes on. At first it’s “Stop shopping,” embrace a less materialist, consumerist lifestyle and learn to appreciate the more human side of life, especially on a holiday that should be about peace and love and family and such. But later it’s “Buy American.”
Not that there can’t be some merit to both, but if you’re going to be non-materialistic and give the gift of time and love and such rather than something you buy, then you’re not buying American.
Maybe he needs to have more of an edge. At least with Michael Moore you know that when he’s going for laughs and when he’s not, he’s a fierce advocate for what he believes in and for blasting the wealthy and powerful who blithely trample on others in their obsessive pursuit of even more wealth and power. It’s no mystery why those people (and a fair number of folks to whom they’ve successfully propagandized) absolutely hate his guts, while he also has enthusiastic supporters cheering him on.
But it’s hard to see people on either side getting emotional like that about Reverend Billy. He’s a likable guy, and he pursues his cause in a way that plays down the nitty gritty of who benefits from his message failing and why. (Though granted, when he protests at the bigger stores and corporations, like at Disneyland, they cooperate in giving him the confrontation he wants and throw him out or have him arrested.) Mostly it comes across with about as much bite as if he were urging people to be nicer to puppies.
Heck, I admit I like Reverend Billy. I didn’t get into him all that much in the beginning, but over time I got more of a kick out of him and his shtick.
But I didn’t need this much of him. Not unless they were going to get deeper and have him address these matters more seriously and spell out his ideas more, to go along with the footage of him doing his role playing in public. Otherwise a twenty minute short would have been plenty.
Better than that, though, would have been if the movie were kept the same length, but the Reverend Billy portion of it were reduced to twenty minutes.
In fact, for a fair amount of the film, it isn’t obvious that it’s going to be almost all his story. In addition to him, there are talking heads commenting on consumerism and its ethical and political ramifications, and there are intriguing and sad snippets of person-in-the-street type interviews with people trapped in materialism and fad chasing, including several young people talking about how absolutely essential it is for their status to have the latest this and the hottest that. But soon it’s almost all about the Church of Stop Shopping’s bus tour to spread its message, with very little of that other material any more.
That’s where I think the movie went wrong. The mix should have shifted in precisely the opposite direction. The Reverend Billy stuff should have been relegated to occasional comic relief to keep the film from being too slow and heavy, but mostly it should have been a more serious documentary about these issues.
Because when those other interviewees–both academic and regular consumers–were on camera, I was almost always more interested in this movie. That material drew me in; there just isn’t enough of it.
Still, the Reverend Billy stuff isn’t bad. I ended up liking him and liking this movie enough to where I feel comfortable giving it a mild recommendation.