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The Odd Couple

Two offbeat movies turn the world upside down

by and

Practiced by juvenile delinquents and sociopaths, the prank bears fruit both bitter and lame, be it dine-and-dash or arson.

But practiced by revolutionaries, conceptual artists, Daily Show comics and activists, the prank is a response to an unjust system -- an upturned garden rake left on the bossman's sidewalk.

The Yes Men proves, yet again, that these are rich times for political documentary, when even the most off-the-wall conceptual stunts become the stuff of multiplex entertainment. Made by a trio of directors -- Dan Ollman, Sarah Price and Chris Smith (responsible for American Movie) -- The Yes Men documents the work of a pair of artists/activists, "Andy Bichlbaum" and "Mike Bonanno," aka the Yes Men, who are determined to lay a whoopee cushion under the World Trade Organization's capacious ass.

Andy and Mike are the same guys who brought America the Barbie Liberation Organization, a beautifully conceived gender-bending lark in which talking Barbie and G.I. Joe voice boxes were switched to the delight of toddlers whose grizzled G.I. Joes now chirped, "Let's go shopping!"

Andy and Mike's latest prank begins with a fake WTO website that offers a subtle critique of the organization. But the site looks so real, uncritical surfers mistake it for the real McCoy and invite the men to speak about WTO issues on CNBC or at a Finland textile conference.

A tech-savvy pair who exploit not only the sea snake-sized loopholes in the Internet, Andy and Mike are like the underground's answer to mainstream journalism cheaters Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair. If you put up a good enough front, no one questions your facts or even if you are who you say you are. While those cheaters practiced deception for career advancement, Andy and Mike work the system to make a political point.

Like some slacker dream team, the various appendages of the Yes Men's global insubordination network include a laid-off Louisiana techie who creates the Yes Men's hilariously geeky animation graphics for their PowerPoint lectures, and an LA costume designer who employs gold lame and a giant phallus to hilarious effect at the Finland conference.

The whole Yes Men concept is like some brilliant slacker notion hatched between tokes on a mega-bong. But in this case, the idea moves beyond the couch, into the very bosom of the media -- Harpers, Fortune, The New York Times -- that documents their WTO prankery. In an age of apathy when the idea of protesting in the streets seems outmoded, humor may, in fact, be the best protest because it feeds the media machine that reaches into American homes.

Giggling like schoolboys, the Yes Men lapse into hyper-serious "International Businessman Mode" when needed. Using the WTO bottom line of maximum profits as their jumping off point, the men create a hilariously hypothetical view of what life operating under the principle of profit-at-any-cost might look like. Using clips from The Birth of a Nation in Finland, Andy delivers a PowerPoint argument for the economic feasibility of the "right" kind of slavery. In front of a university economics class, the duo argues for maximizing burger profits by transforming First World excrement into Third World hamburgers. The very different ways the businessmen and the students react to these pranks is profoundly telling.

Andy and Mike succeed in unmasking the WTO as a kind of front -- a United Nations of commerce that fills the pocketbooks of the richest nations while outsourcing poverty to the Third World. But all the political moxie and truth-speaking in the world can't make The Yes Men -- the movie -- as rocking as its politics. The moment where the activists reveal their WTO "prank" to a British anti-globalism activist, for instance, looks like the denouement of a Candid Camera gag. Yes Men prankery is clearly the kind of culture jamming that works best in the vaporous ether of the underground -- surfacing sporadically on college campuses and in the media. When unmasked and analyzed with such cut-and-dried thoroughness, the project loses some of its zing. -- FF

If you yawned at the high-tech action scenes of the Matrix movies but loved all the verbiage about the nature of reality, feed your head with What the #$*! Do We Know!? William Arntz, Betsy Chasse and Mark Vicente concoct a hard-to-classify combination of narrative feature and philosophical documentary that's about everything and nothing.A framing device follows Marlee Matlin as a divorced photographer wrestling with low self-esteem. The filmmakers intercut scenes from her daily routine with snippets of computer animation and talking-head interviews with physicists, neural scientists and other heavy thinkers who draw connections between quantum science, human perception and positive thinking.

For instance, when Matlin encounters a cloyingly precocious boy on a basketball court, the film ruminates on subatomic physics and such concepts as nonlinear time. To its credit, What the #$*! occasionally steps back and urges its audience not to dismiss its heady ideas just because they can be hard to grasp. But neither should we mistake difficulty for depth.

What the #$*! communicates most clearly when it focuses on the physiological nature of emotions and how people can become literally addicted to certain feelings and behaviors. When Matlin shoots a raucous wedding reception, we see animations of the wedding guests' brain cells that represent their unleashed gluttony, lust, etc. While the sequence convincingly lays out its biochemical concepts, it also relies on painfully heavy-handed humor and acting.

When the various eggheads expound on the nature of God and how Zen meditation can influence the surrounding environment, What the #$*! might as well debate how many quantum scientists can dance on the head of a pin. But if you're intrigued by the film's willingness to contemplate the meaning of life, just be patient: I envision a future in which What the #$*! Do We Know!? is a mainstay of PBS pledge drives. -- CH

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