The real question is who comes off worse: the callous GM executive, the bunny-cidal woman or Bob Eubanks, the anti-Semitic, joke-telling gameshow host.
You might recall Michael Moore as the fellow from Flint, Michigan, who lasted about four months as editor of Mother Jones. After getting canned, he returned with empty pockets to his hometown and sued the magazine for wrongful discharge. This brought him an out-of-court settlement of $58,000—a turn of events so inspirational that he decided, without the encumbrance of experience, to put his money into making a film. The result, titled Roger and Me, is so good that I wish Mother Jones had fired Moore twice, so he could have made two movies.
Though its subject—the destruction of a once-prosperous town by factory closings—could hardly be more wrenching, Roger and Me is one of the funniest, most invigorating movies you’re likely to see this year. “I figured, who wants to sit in a dark theater and watch people collect free Federal surplus cheese?” Moore says. “How’s that going to be entertaining? How’s that going to change anything?” He decided his documentary would have to be accessible and funny The Atomic Café is the model he cites—and to some degree, Moore has followed that example. Roger and Me is crammed with found footage: home movies, promotional films, TV shows and stock clips, most of them used with deadpan humor. (This might be the place to mention the editors, Wendey Stanzler and Jennifer Beman; amazingly, they too are novice filmmakers.)
But the mocking use of found footage is already a bit too familiar a technique; though well employed here, it would not have been effective in itself. The real delight of Roger and Me comes from Michael Moore’s personality—his dry, common-sense wit as a narrator, his shambling on-camera presence, his interest in the people he encounters as he knocks around Flint. In his amused sympathy with all sorts of human oddity he reminds me of such gonzo documentarians as Les Blank and Tony Buba. Moore also brings to mind Harvey Pekar, the auteur of American Splendor comics, another autobiographer of the dead industrial heartland.
As the Me of the title, Moore represents not only himself but a long line of industrial laborers. His father used to work on the line at AC Sparkplugs; his uncle was among the sit-down strikers who founded the United Automobile Workers. On behalf of them and everybody else he knew in Flint, Moore thought he should invite Roger to visit his hometown—that being Roger Smith, chair of General Motors. Under Smith’s leadership, GM has been closing its US factories and relocating the assembly lines to more favorable climates, such as Mexico. Moore therefore thought it would be a good thing for the GM chair to pass through town, so he could see for himself how the loss of 30,000 jobs might cause some inconvenience. Strangely enough, Smith declined the invitation. In fact, he wouldn’t even talk with Moore.
A large part of Roger and Me thus consists of a hilarious series of failed efforts to meet Roger Smith. Moore—a portly young man with long, dirty-blond hair and radar-scanner eyes—keeps turning up with his camera crew at GM headquarters in Detroit, at the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club, at the Detroit Athletic Club, at the annual GM stockholders’ meeting. Usually, he is dressed in an old blue windbreaker and a baseball cap bearing the message “I’m out for Trout.” He sometimes augments this costume with the accessory of a toothpick stuck between his lips. People keep asking him if he has an appointment. When one of Roger Smith’s guardians requests his credentials, Moore hands over a discount card from a pizza establishment. “1 didn’t have a business card,” he explains on the sound track.