‘Where to Invade Next’
Director:
Michael Moore
Genre: Documentary
Rating: R
3 (out of 5) Globes

Michael Moore didn’t invent political comedy, but he did (arguably) invent its current wave: where righteous lefty outrage mixes with sarcasm and irony, bemused detachment and passion. These days his successors — most notably, Jon Stewart and his many “Daily Show” minions — are probably doing what Moore did better, or at least more often. Since “Bowling for Columbine,” he’s often let his real anger trump his puckish sense of humor. Where righties can at least admit to enjoying Stewart et al. occasionally, Moore is conservative enemy number one, meaning the only people who may even consider listening to him are those who already agree with him.

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You can sense Moore realizing and anguishing about that in “Where to Invade Next,” his first film in six years. It’s a more laidback affair, which is not to say it lacks ambition. Previously he’d tackled subjects debatably too big for his loose-goosey, sometimes reductive approach: gun control, George W. Bush, health care, capitalism. Here he tries to do something both widespread and specific. In the opening, he lays out the strict parameters of his new movie-stunt: he’ll globetrot, mostly in Europe, and highlight goodly public services done better elsewhere than in America. “I want to pick the flowers, not the weeds,” he says, lest detractors point out that he’s over-simplifying things or ignoring context. (That hasn’t stopped some harsh critiques anyway.) He fashions the film as a utopian thought experiment, and wants you to play along.

And so we see how good things could be in America, as they already are elsewhere. There’s generous vacation and maternity leave in Italy. France treats its growing young students to extravagant, not sad and gross, school lunches—complete with a cheese course. Prisons in Norway actively try to reform prisoners by treating them, even serial murderers, as humans. Tunisia offers free health clinics for women, whereas America tries to shut down places like Planned Parenthood based on misleading, sometimes outright fabricated, evidence.

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Again, this is all a thought experiment, albeit for matters that could and should be implemented. Some services are even based on America ideas that we’ve forgotten or have never gotten around to implementing for real. Whether any of them are close to happening ultimately doesn’t matter. The film’s goal, it could argued, isn’t far from the paradise laid out in John Lennon’s “Imagine” — a song that, like Moore himself, has long been a bugaboo of the far right, who bristle at the suggestion, in an undying pop song, of ridding the world of forms of inequality, such as money and religion, even if that’s never going to happen. 

But when you do think of these things would be like, we can start thinking of ways to improve society rather than keep things same-old and fairly miserable. “Where to Invade Next” doesn’t have answers, but it doesn’t have to. It seeks to prod, and it does it in a way that’s more charming and funnier than Moore has allowed himself to be in ages. It’s closer to his “TV Nation” and “The Awful Truth” days, when he wasn’t yet the face of Cool, Pissed-Off Liberalism, but just a guy with a camera making bite-sized attacks, not scattershot sieges upon topics too big for his style. “Invade” has its logic holes and some overly sentimental stretches. But its goal to make us dream for a better America is only marginally easy to resist, and hopefully not just for those on the left.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge