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."
So Moore's mischievous smirk--present on every promo poster, DVD cover, and nearly every frame of every Michael Moore documentary--hangs back for the first 40 minutes of Sicko. Gone are the cloying cartoons, the ambush interviews, the playful stuntifying. Where the absence of Moore's foolery leaves space for profiles of people who died because their insurance companies wouldn't foot the bill, Sicko is moving. And critics have hailed the new, more reflective Moore. But they might have added less entertaining.
Without the goofy sensibility, Sicko ends up swimming in circles. The camera travels to Canada to revel in socialized medicine. Then its off to Britain, to revel in socialized medicine. Then to France to, well . . . by now even Moore seems bored, stuck at an interminable dinner party of gushing American expats--feigning surprise at each exclamation of how good their life is. Only the long buzz-shadow of Sicko's vestigial stunt--the Cuba trip--keeps the second half of the film afloat. Judged at the box office, America's reaction to the new Moore has been resoundingly average.
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.
Boosters argue that Fahrenheit 9/11, which had much sexier subject matter, isn't a fair comparison and instead point to Moore's 2002 Bowling for Columbine. Certainly Sicko looks healthier next to Columbine's total domestic take (adjusted for inflation and ticket price hikes) of $24.1 million. But consider that Sicko benefited from much greater pre-release media attention, and was showing in over 1,000 theaters at its widest release (compared to Colubmine's 250 theater peak) and Moore is barely edging out himself. And he's just holding his own against Madonna. Adjusted for inflation and higher ticket prices, her 1991 bio doc Madonna: Truth or Dare took in a $23.4 million at the domesic box office during its month-long release. And we all remember the sea change in American politics that followed that one.
Sidestepping Farhenheit 9/11 comparisons is also a tad dubious on its face. Maybe it's not quite Madonna sexy, but heath care has finished second in almost every recent poll of voter priorities. If people buy tickets on their politics, there should be a sizable audience out there somewhere.
For as long as Michael Moore has been directing the left has been in a state of intermittent rapture and the right, underneath its loathing, in a state of deep anxiety. The common assumption has been that Moore's big audiences represent a vast reservoir of ordinary Americans--the middle-of-the-road, non-documentary watching Joe Consumer types--that are eager to pay for a liberal sermon.
In retrospect, that Bowling for Columbine didn't spark any important discussion of gun control and Fahrenheit 9/11 didn't drive George Bush from office might have been clues. That Sicko isn't breaking any new ground suggests that Moore's audience represents a much more familiar reservoir: largely non-political Americans looking for novel entertainment. It also suggests that Moore's creative funk might last a little longer than he'd hoped.
Louis Wittig is a media writer in New York.