Movie review by Greg Carlson
“The Yes Men,” an affable and innocuous documentary that should have been made out of lightning bolts and razor blades, might have been great had it been cut to an hour and presented as an episode of “Frontline.” Directors Chris Smith and Sarah Price (joined this time by Dan Ollman) previously made the brilliant “American Movie,” but “The Yes Men” is not even in the same league. Shot on dreary, smeary video, the movie lacks the panache, coherence, and fascinating characters that made “American Movie” such a brilliant film. To its credit, “The Yes Men” does manage a handful of riveting sequences, but the end result is an experience that leaves the audience in need of more information.
Following the bizarre antics of a small group of left-leaning activists whose mission is to raise awareness about the World Trade Organization’s lack of concern for poor nations, “The Yes Men” focuses primarily on Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, who pose as representatives of the WTO in order to pull increasingly over-the-top stunts. Traveling the globe to appear at free trade conferences in Finland and Australia, Bichlbaum and Bonanno mount their ruse by reverse infiltration: their gatt.org website looks so similar to the official WTO homepage it is frequently mistaken for the real thing. Once invited to make presentations, all the Yes Men have to do is show up and work their gags.
Two protracted sequences showcase the Yes Men in their element. In Tampere, Finland, they present a jaw-dropping Power Point slideshow essentially advocating slave labor, and end the speech by revealing a prototype of a space-age, shimmering bodysuit that sports a giant inflatable phallus. With an essentially straight face, Bichlbaum explains to the passive audience that the huge golden penis is in fact an “Employee Visualization Appendage,” equipped with a TV monitor that allows managers to keep tabs on their low-wage workers from a distance. If the laborers don’t exercise efficient habits, electric shocks can be administered from the buttons on the leisure suit. Nobody in attendance has any questions.
In the second featured segment, the boys tag-team a class of college students (the professor is in on the joke) by explaining that the WTO has partnered with the McDonald’s corporation to offer a solution to hunger in Third World countries: human excrement can be reprocessed into hamburger patties and shipped overseas. While half the class munches on burgers provided by the pranksters, a hilariously crude (in several senses of the word) 3D animation of the proposed procedure is projected on the big screen. It is a huge relief when the disgusted scholars speak out against the presenters, as it restores a little bit of the faith that went missing in Tampere.
Whether the Finnish conference attendees were completely stunned into silence, were just being polite, or assumed that the WTO was conducting business as usual, “The Yes Men” chooses to remain mute on several salient points. The directors include far too many scenes of Bichlbaum and Bonanno getting dressed, shopping for business suits at the Salvation Army, and hoofing it en route to scheduled speaking appearances. Instead, it would have been interesting to include some weightier perspectives on the issues at the heart of international labor problems.
This review was originally published in the High Plains Reader the week of 11/15/04.