Michael Moore's tries a different formula, but with the same result.
11:45 PM, Aug 9, 2007 • By LOUIS WITTIG
MICHAEL MOORE IS AT the top of his game. Audiences have made his latest project, Sicko, the fourth most successful documentary ever released. Critics are calling it his most impressive work yet. And he's basking in the life-giving glow of TV lights while calling his interviewers tools of Big Pharma. And yet, Sicko is the work of an artist in a deepening creative funk.
Whatever else one thinks of him, the idea of Michael Moore as stunted doesn't come naturally. Beginning with Roger & Me, he's single-handedly refined a style of documentary film--call it Moore style-that has changed the genre. Moore is fundamentally two artists--one a polemicist, one a comedian--and his style is split, too. The foundation is always a standard left-wing argument. The real life of his work, though, is his inimitable humor: wry montage, deadpan narrative, slick editing, stunts out of a socio-political Jackass and interviews that make powerful people visibly uncomfortable. The effect is pure ying-yang. The passion gives his nonfiction frolics direction and speed. Moore's inner jester lightens his films' tendency toward insufferable preaching. And the ambiguity between them leave it unclear why audiences respond to Moore's work. Are they snickering or pounding their fists on the armrests? Or both?
Whichever, the style made him the richest, most influential documentary-maker of all time. But it predisposes him, perhaps more than most, to that quandry all worthwhile artists eventually wrestle with. No matter how technically proficient, they want to see their work actually accomplish something. And a decade-plus of wrapping his message in farce hasn't gotten Moore anywhere.
The original idea for Sicko came to him from his short-lived TV series The Awful Truth. In one segment he found a man whose HMO had denied him a potenitally life saving pancreas transplant. Moore showed up at the company headquarters, did his by now familiar routine, and the man got a pancreas.
"One of the original ideas I had for this movie . . . was that I was going to do that 10 times. Ten 10-minute segments. And we could do that and save 10 lives," Moore told Entertainment Weekly. "[But] what did that accomplish? . . . There's much bigger fish to fry here than going after one little board . . . I guess that would make a good film, but everyone would go, 'There goes Mike again' . . . That's good. But I hope to see a larger change in the not-too-distant future . . . [ultimately] I felt it would be much stronger not to have me in the way."
Last year the Weinstein brothers, were luring investors to Sicko with promises of a $40 million gross. In its first month of wide-release, Sicko's domestic box office take has been $21.5 million. A fantastic sum--for anyone but Michael Moore. Two years ago Fahrenheit 9/11 took in $103 million in its first four weeks.
Louis Wittig is a media writer in New York.