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Yes Men, The

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/17/05 23:04:36

"Making corporate villainy fun again."
3 stars (Just Average)

Remember that website that parodied with great precision George W. Bush’s first campaign web page? You know, the one that looked exactly like the then-candidate’s site, only this one featured such details as Dubya’s history with cocaine? If you don’t, then at least you might remember the comments that Bush made in reaction to the site’s popularity: this is the one that got him to tell a reporter that “there ought to be limits to freedom.”

Well, the two guys responsible for that site, Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum, earned a reputation for comic muckraking, and soon they were being hired to take on the World Trade Organization. But here’s where things get weird: companies, not bothering to read the duo’s WTO parody site more carefully, actually believed they were visiting the real WTO online, and soon the two were receiving invites to send a WTO rep to various functions around the globe. Naturally, Bonanno and Bichlbaum accepted.

The documentary “The Yes Men” follows their exploits as professional WTO impersonators. The film takes its title from the name the duo took on once their rabble-rousing days got going, their new mission being to represent the WTO as faithfully as possible, only more so. Everything they tell convention goers, company CEOs, and anyone else willing to pay to listen, the Yes Men strive to keep within the WTO’s own mission, even if there’s a bit of exaggeration.

Exaggeration, of course, is the name of the game. After a few conventions of mild speeches in which one of the Yes Men’s fictional spokesmen made outrageous comments about, among other things, the pros and cons of slavery in a corporate context, Bonanno and Bichlbaum realized that the satire they were providing was landing with a thud. There’s a surreal moment in the film in which Bichlbaum rambles on about how the Civil War was a flop because it was the “least profitable” in American history, and not only does the crowd not respond to such offensive remarks, they look downright bored. Just another speaker, just another convention. Even when Bichlbaum - under the I-can’t-believe-they-thought-this-was-a-real-name pseudonym “Hank Hardy Unruh” - peels off his breakaway business suit to reveal the “Management Leisure Suit,” a skintight number with a giant inflatable phallus with a TV monitor on the head (so managers can watch their laborers while they enjoy an on-the-go lifestyle), the reaction is not “hey, did you mention sweatshops as being good for business, and if so, what the frick are you smoking?” but “hmm, that’s out-of-the-box thinking and all, and I still buy you as the real deal.”

It’s this part of the movie that offers up a wonderful slice of sociology: how much will an audience take before speaking out? There’s a contrasting scene later on in which the duo address a college classroom (I won’t give away what they’re passing off as real here - it’s too outrageous that you’ll need to see it for yourself), and the students, not believing their ears, tear the guest speakers apart. Here, finally, is what Bonanno and Bichlbaum have wanted, a crowd that sees the lengths to which soulless corporations will go in the name of a dollar, and they refuse to take it. Compare this with the corporate crowd, who blindly accept whatever comes out of the speaker’s piehole. Damn strange.

Dan Ollman, Sarah Price, and Chris Smith all worked in one aspect or another on Smith’s brilliant 1999 documentary “American Movie” and now share directing credit here. You’d think three directors would clutter up the project, but it actually doesn’t get in the way at all. Granted, the film does lack a bit of focus - there’s not much of a story to be told here, just a snapshot of satirists/activists briefly in action - and yet the issues at hand are compelling enough to cover up any of the movie’s shortcomings. “The Yes Men” is an inspired chronicle, a captivating study on the lengths some people will go to in order to rock the boat, and the lengths others will go to in order to keep the boat steady. I wish the film had expanded its view, allowing us to see more than just a couple of the Yes Men’s pranks, and yet what we get, while not much, is at least sufficient. Politics are debated, issues are raised. And hey, “The Yes Men” makes WTO discussion fun, an impressive feat all its own.

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