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Movie Review

Capitalism: A Love Story

Play it again, Michael Moore

By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / October 2, 2009

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The scope of Michael Moore’s documentaries gets bigger with each movie. Twenty years ago he told the story of how General Motors undid his hometown, and went on to tackle gun control, the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq war, and health care. Now Moore is going after the entire American economic system. But “Capitalism: A Love Story’’ is redundant for a filmmaker whose work has always dealt with the dismaying consequences of this country’s profit motive. Isn’t every Michael Moore film ultimately about capitalism? This one just has a more facetious title.

This love story lands amid a crisis that’s been dubbed The Great Recession, and Moore’s talent for on-time arrivals gives the movie a lot of its kick. But the subject is so vast that what ultimately Moore intends to achieve is vague. After opening with an amusingly juxtaposed montage of clips depicting life in ancient Rome mixed with highlights of the Bush administration (them again), the movie finds a couple of nice families whose homes are being foreclosed upon. It introduces us to a gentleman who spends his days promiscuously snatching up such repossessed properties.

Moore delves into a Wal-Mart life-insurance scandal in which the company profits from dead employees. He shares a city bench with a former Wall Street whiz who has an impossible, if hilarious, time trying to explain certain financial instruments. He visits with Marcy Kaptur, a congresswoman from Ohio, who has called the government’s bailout of failing banks a crime perpetrated against the American people. Along the way, Moore continues to whack at the Bush administration, which, for his purposes, is like a piñata that will never stop raining candy.

These encounters, and others in which Moore parts the curtain on his Michigan childhood, certainly stoke the movie’s editorial fire. But the filmmaking doesn’t build into a greater whole. “Capitalism’’ lacks the epic human scope of “Bowling for Columbine,’’ the rage of “Fahrenheit 9/11,’’ and the farce of his most underrated outing, “Sicko.’’ This one feels diffuse, even for Moore.

Part of the problem may be the fault of the economy itself. Had Moore waited for real improvement - well, who knows when we’d see the movie. Yet a narrower political universe, like gun control, for instance, allows Moore’s roving imagination to make surprising observations, to exhaust the subject. Here the hugeness appears to have wiped him out.

He’s also better on the road. For all the different tales of malfeasance and woe, “Capitalism’’ feels inert. You yearn for the inspired spirit of expedition that culminated in Moore’s taking a boatload of ailing Americans to Cuba for free medical care in “Sicko.’’ This time, all we get is a finale in which the director runs a roll of crime-scene tape around the Merrill Lynch building. It’s a hollow bit of comedy.

As he’s become a star of anti-corporate discontent, Moore has put Average Joes on such a high pedestal that they can’t get down. He is neither journalist nor talk-show host enough to really question his constituents. But, really, those kinds of challenges don’t suit his brand of entertainment, which often relies on conjecture and extrapolation to rouse or infuriate. Moore can turn a kernel of truth into a barrel of popcorn. That’s a peculiar skill. Even as you recognize that the nuances and finer points of arguments are being shaved away, the conclusion he reaches feels about right. He simply cuts a lot of corners to get there.

“Capitalism’’ is long on terrible stories of helpless families and officials profiting from the abuse of their power. But in creating this air of unstoppable cosmic oppression, Moore makes us seem more helpless than we actually are. Greed is bad. The banks need reform. And many of the haves in this country have what they have at the expense of have-nots. But in asserting this, Moore has made a movie about the inarguable ravages of the free market that omits the possibility of free will.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

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CAPITALISM: A LOVE STORY Written and directed by: Michael Moore

At: Boston Common, Fenway, Kendall, Embassy, suburbs

Running time: 108 minutes

Rated: R (some language)

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