On the webpage where Michael Moore’s latest film, “Slacker Uprising,” is available for free download, Moore writes, “I’m giving you my blanket permission to not only download it, but also to e-mail it, burn it, and share it with anyone...In other words—it’s yours!” By presenting his documentary online, Moore has become one of the first big-name directors to challenge traditional notions of film distribution. Such munificence might be meaningful were the film anything more than a self-congratulatory vanity project.
The documentary centers on the “Slacker Uprising,” Moore’s 2004 tour of college campuses in which he encouraged unregistered voters in battleground states to cast a ballot. With a host of celebrity friends, including R.E.M., Roseanne Barr, and Viggo Mortensen, Moore distributed ramen noodles and clean underwear to consistent nonvoters in the hopes that their support would sway the election against incumbent George W. Bush.
The narrative of the film begins straightforwardly. The opening scenes recount the effects of the “Swift Boat” attacks on Democrat John Kerry’s campaign. Ominous music plays as the words, “This is the story of one filmmaker’s failed attempt to turn things around” appear onscreen.
Yet the documentary loses direction with startling celerity. Gone is the Michael Moore who sharply analyzed America’s gun culture in 2002’s “Bowling for Columbine.” In his stead is a veritable egomaniac, feeding off fans’ effusive praise. In an early sequence, Moore uses footage of women screaming wildly for him; a few scenes later, he proudly tells a crowd, “My movies are the anti-propaganda!”
For an ostensibly political film, the movie is overwhelmingly centered on its own documentarian. Part of the problem may lie in overlap; having already covered the Bush presidency in 2004’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” Moore seems unable to find a focal point. Yet this film is so inexorably tied to that previous work—numerous scenes include fans gushing about “Fahrenheit 9/11”—that it still winds up feeling like a retread.
Perhaps it was his lack of cohesive vision that led Moore to dedicate a surprising amount of screen time to musical performances. Singers including Eddie Vedder, Steve Earle, and Joan Baez perform full songs at various points throughout the film. But rather than feeling uplifting, these scenes seem merely out of place.
Equally unnecessary is a series of fake pro-Bush commercials that appears midway through the film. Humorous interludes have previously worked well in Moore’s films—an uproarious animation sequence in “Bowling for Columbine” is one such example—yet these clips do nothing to advance the story.
Despite its flaws, “Slacker Uprising” does include a handful of poignant moments. The personal testimonials from the families of Iraq War victims are particularly powerful, especially one in which a mother honors her fallen son. Scenes like these bring much-needed gravity and direction to the film when it veers too far off course. Yet these segments are nearly lost in the deluge of meaningless celebrity speeches which only reiterate Moore’s immense “bravery.”
Fortunately, the film picks up steam as the focus shifts to the final weeks before the election. Moore gives his story a boost of adrenaline by focusing on a series of conservative protests against his speeches. He even manages to evoke some tension and excitement—though the election’s outcome is, of course, obvious. Nevertheless, the film’s final sections bring to mind memories of Michael Moore at his best.
Ultimately, “Slacker Uprising” represents the culmination of a failed project. The film is a re-editing of “Captain Mike Across America,” a documentary that Moore premiered in 2007 to tepid reviews. Despite Moore’s efforts to reinvent this film, “Slacker Uprising” suffers from excessive self-indulgence. If Moore wants to return to his past excellence, he must do more than re-edit—instead, he must go back to the drawing board.