Say what you like about Michael Moore, he certainly knows how to pick his subjects. "Fahrenheit 9/11" was so au courant about the invasion of Iraq it won the 2004 Palme d'Or at Cannes, and 2007's "Sicko" got the jump on the current healthcare imbroglio. Now, barely a year after the Wall Street meltdown, "Capitalism: A Love Story" examines, in typical love-it-or-leave-it Moore fashion, the causes of the collapse of the century.
"Capitalism" is not just Moore's latest documentary, it is, as the filmmaker himself has said, "the movie I've been making for the past 20 years." He lays the ills of American society that he's chronicled over all that time at the feet of an out-of-control free-market system he so detests that he puts priests on camera to talk about capitalism as morally evil.
Clearly, Moore has not lost his provocateur's gift for stirring the pot, and it is heartening to have a filmmaker take on a subject this all-encompassing and almost taboo. But not even Moore's skill can quell the suspicion that "Capitalism" misses the narrower focus that gave his earlier films some of their punch.
In a sense, "Capitalism" comes by its wide-ranging, scattershot approach naturally. After all, this is a heck of a big subject: Just ask Karl Marx, who spent 18 years researching and writing his multi-volume "Das Kapital." So it's perhaps inevitable because of the ton of territory "Capitalism" covers that this film ends up as the sum of its parts, nothing more.
That said, Moore's scattershot is a lot more interesting than some filmmakers' focus, and many of those individual parts are classic. For one thing, Moore retains the instincts of a shrewd stand-up comedian -- the astonished, baffled looks he often wears are a case in point, as is his decision to include under the rubric of "When did Jesus become a capitalist?" the dubbing of a section of a biblical epic with free-market platitudes.
And Moore has not lost his zest for confrontational antics. He asks New York financial workers to explain derivatives, drives an armored car up to AIG corporate headquarters and demands the company return federal bailout funds, even surrounds all of Wall Street with yellow "crime scene" tape to emphasize his low opinion of the area's activities.
One of the things that is new about "Capitalism" is an emphasis on the filmmaker's personal life. He talks about how, inspired by Daniel Berrigan, he wanted to be an activist priest, and he goes with his dad to the site of the former AC spark plug plant in Flint, Mich., -- now a vacant lot -- where his father spent satisfying decades as a union-protected assembly-line worker.
The main point Moore wants to make, the thing that drives him craziest, is his notion that capitalism, far from being a system that rewards excellence, is a scheme set up to make a profit on absolutely anything. He fears it has in recent decades turned American society into a culture that says money is the only value, and he has a number of cases he wants to use to make his point. These include:
* The scandal surrounding a for-profit juvenile detention center in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in which two judges got millions of dollars in kickbacks from the owners for sending more than a thousand juveniles to the establishment.
* The little-noticed portion of the congressional testimony of Chesley B. "Sully" Sullenberger III, the US Airways pilot who miraculously landed his plane on New York's Hudson River, who told legislators that his pay has been cut 40% in recent years and his pension terminated.
* The strategy of major firms to take out life insurance policies on their employees -- known in the trade as "dead peasant insurance" -- that pays off to the companies, not to the employees' survivors.
Though he started on "Capitalism" before last year's Wall Street meltdown, Moore delves into that collapse as well. While another documentary, Leslie Cockburn's "American Casino," does a better job with the questions surrounding massive housing foreclosures, Moore's film, aided by strong statements from Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), raises questions about the nature of the multibillion-dollar government bailout.
At the end of the day, perhaps the most startling thing about "Capitalism" is that Moore stands revealed not as some pointy-headed socialist but as an unreconstructed New Deal Democrat who admires Franklin D. Roosevelt, believes in increased democracy and opportunity, and feels that the decades-long weakening of unions has fatally weakened America. The fact that this will be a controversial stance says as much about today's political culture as it does about Moore's place in it.
'Capitalism: A Love Story'
MPAA rating: R for some language
Running time: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Playing: At the ArcLight in Hollywood and the Landmark in West L.A.