Enter Bill Talen, aka Reverend Billy, a performance artist who takes his evangelist shtick and his troupe, the Church of Stop Shopping (including a choir), around America to shopping malls, Disneyland, etc. to rail against consumerism. In the tradition of other recent smartass documentaries (such as co-producer Morgan Spurlock's Super Size Me), What Would Jesus Buy? follows the troupe as they yell at Christmas shoppers, stage a mock funeral for small-town America (at the Wal-Mart corporate office in Bentonville) and go caroling, rewriting the words of "Joy to the World" to "We don't need so much junk." Amen.
The most effective moment of What Would Jesus Buy? is not any of Rev. Billy's silly guerrilla-theater exploits (even though he is apparently sincere). It's a montage of pictures and home movies from Talen's South Dakota childhood, showing his sisters playing piano and other sane family members. Contrasted with the freakshow of rabid mall rats and shopping addicts depicted in the rest of the film, it makes you wonder what the hell has happened to America.
However, Rev. Billy is also a freak, with his bug-eyed roadkill stare and a dye job that would shame Jessica Simpson. Or at least, he's pretending to be one. And that's the problem with today's America: Where are the normal people?
The answer is, of course, they are still everywhere, except on TV or in the movies. The filmmakers interview a few of them, and they talk about growing up without much money and being happy anyway at Christmastime. But most of the interviews are with shopaholics and the conclusion is pretty depressing: In modern America, Christmas signifies bling.
The commercialization of Christmas is an old theme --- A Charlie Brown Christmas riffed on it memorably in the 1960s, and it's also a recurring theme of Marxist professors, for those who care. But sadly, George W. Bush has vindicated even the stupidest critiques of America. Bush's suggestion after 9/11 that consumer spending is a patriotic gesture was just not the right message at a time when Americans' consumer debt exceeded $2 trillion (according to the film, Americans charge $100 billion each Xmas).
Spending money to keep the economy moving made sense back when Americans still produced most of the goods we consumed. But many non-service jobs have been outsourced, and when Americans spend money it primarily enriches long-distance truckers and Asian sweatshops. Like so much of what has happened in the last 20 years, it's a good blueprint for ruining the nation.
In reality, the patriotic thing would be to shop less and to buy American. Bush got it wrong. As usual. Rev. Billy has it right. Apart from its irreligiosity, shopping 'til you drop is bad for America. Our endless consumption of cheap crap is a moral issue, even a geopolitical issue. But it's an issue with a solution, and you don't have to join a church. Just... stop... shopping. Don't buy anything unless you have to, and find some other way to spend your time. You'll probably be happier.
Rev. Billy's approach is unlikely to change anything or convince anybody, partly because it paints consumerism mostly as a religious issue, and for a lot of people, religion is an instant turn-off. And they have a point -- Christianity started out as a superstitious cult. But through the centuries it became a carrier of cultural meaning. Christmas is a symbol of that. And what Christmas has become in modern America is a pathetic spectacle.
So we need a better movie about this subject. As usual.
Run time: 91 mins
In Theaters: Friday 16th November 2007
Box Office USA: $0.1M
Distributed by: Mammouth Releasing
Production compaines: Palisades Pictures, Warrior Poets
Contactmusic.com: 2.5 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 56%
Fresh: 32 Rotten: 25
IMDB: 6.4 / 10
Director: Rob VanAlkemade
Producer: Peter Hutchison, Stacey Offman, Morgan Spurlock
Starring: Reverend Billy as Reverend Billy, James Solomon Benn as Choir Director, Savitri Durkee as Church Director
Also starring: Morgan Spurlock
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