We roused Judge Kerry Birmingham from his caviar bath long enough to dictate this review to his illegal immigrant houseboy.
America rules the world! But who rules America?
There are quite a few things that can be blamed on or credited to Michael Moore, the gadfly documentarian whose political indictments like Fahrenheit 9/11, Roger & Me, and Sick have tackled sensitive issues like terrorism, corporate responsibility, and the America's broken health care system. For better or for worse, Moore reinvigorated what had already been a genre known for its willingness to tackle weighty issues. A slew of imitators have followed in his wake, resulting in a vast selection of political and social diatribes on film ranging from objective discourse to extremist screeds put on tape.
Perhaps to differentiate itself, The American Ruling Class, spearheaded by Harper's magazine editor and plutocrat Lewis A. Lapham, attempts to make its subject matter—the American elite and the becoming thereof—more palatable, by inserting its broad theme into a fictional framework and throwing in some musical numbers to liven up potentially dry topics like "commercial oligarchy." This is not an indignant polemic, nor a conclusive one, but there are a few catchy songs. The result is a unique viewing experience that skirts a line between coy social commentary and amused resignation.
Facts of the Case
The American Ruling Class follows Jack Bellamy and Mike Vanzetti (Caton Burwell and Paul Cantagallo), two recent Yale graduates approaching their encroaching adulthood with two different approaches. Practical Jack, coming from a background of wealth, takes a job at a well-known investment firm; Mike, working class and more romantic, decides to take a year off to travel and write, working as a waiter to make ends meet. Lapham serves as both narrator of the film and mentor to the two young men, introducing them to scads of real-life executives, politicians, iconoclasts, authors, and celebrities, in pursuit of an answer to one question: Is there an "American Ruling Class," and if so, how does one join them?
Much like its subject matter, The American Ruling Class is strange, damn strange. Seemingly aware of its dense, heady material and looking to give it a relatable point of view, the "documentary" gives us obvious point of view characters in Mike and Jack, played by "amateur actors well-suited to the parts;" emphasis on the "amateur," if the actors' performances are any indication. Essentially playing variations on themselves, Cantagallo and Burwell are Harvard grads (not Yale), which means they should be fine when their acting careers don't take off. Perhaps one to know an "American ruling class" when he sees it, Lapham is quintessentially "Old Money." By having them do in-character interviews with scads of famous and influential men (most likely culled from Lapham's rolodex), this bemused Yoda-like figure puts his characters through their paces.
Jack and Mike traverse the gamut of the power elite, speaking with noted iconoclasts—the late director Robert Altman, author Kurt Vonnegut, folk singer Pete Seeger, and historian Howard Zinn—and a long list of business executives whose collective educations, political appointments, and corporate positions make them formidable. Some of them are in on the joke—movie executive Mike Medavoy appears to take some glee in perpetuating the slimy studio executive archetype—while others, perhaps suspecting a Michael Moore-style ambush, stick to their rhetoric—a Shell oil executive sweats through one of Mike's innocuous interviews as if he were being grilled on 60 Minutes.
By the time it's done, The American Ruling Class has gone from the hallowed halls of Yale and Washington's corridors of power, to Hollywood, the oil companies, the offices of The New York Times, and all points in between. It's a lot of information—a history, sociology, and economics lesson rolled into one—and there are no easy answers, if any at all. Mike and Jack are ultimately irrelevant; they are entry points, a segue, and devil's advocates for the opposing point of view. Nothing they do is particularly interesting or rewarding, and the thin storylines they're given don't mean much to the movie at large. The meager troubles of privileged men aren't of interest here.
This is ultimately Lapham's movie. As screenwriter and co-star, he provides stentorian narration and wry erudition, as Mike and Jack haplessly stumble from one disillusionment to another. It's unclear what Lapham, himself an old-guard journalist and product of the Texaco oil dynasty, wants us to take away from the film. At turns suggesting the world is either malleable in the hands of good men or doomed to manipulation by the corrupt, Lapham's own life, and the fates of his protagonists, suggest there is an American ruling class, and the people you would assume have the power actually do.
An appreciation for The American Ruling Class begins with an appreciation for Lapham, sometimes self-deprecating, sometimes smug, and always looking at Jack and Mike with a measure of pity for what he knows is next. There are moments where Lapham's lecturing and his disciples' scripted dissent feel like a 1950s educational film, or Troy McClure instructional film strips from The Simpsons. Lapham's either a pompous windbag or right on the money; probably both, if even half of the information presented here is true.
In this bizarre meld of fact and fiction, the musical numbers are a further curiosity. Not quite numerous enough to earn the film the "musical" tag, its digressions into song faintly suggest an attempt to pad the running time. Essentially low-budget music videos, on a par with late-night commercials for free online credit reports, the handful of songs are actually quite good, especially "Nickel & Dimed," a lament for the wage slave sung by maids, clerks, and short order cooks. The numbers do get fairly inventive, such as the summer camp-styled closing "Empire Falls," but for the most part they're less a novelty and more an intrusion. Jack and Mike are ciphers, there to ease us into the complexities of the story as laid out by Lapham. The songs, in contrast, illuminate little, as well done as they may be.
Under the eye of director John Kirby, the three genres—documentary, fiction, and musical—rest uneasily with each other. It's a tough act to balance and fails more often than not, but the ideas raised trump the willful quirkiness of the production. This hybrid approach to complicated material is likely to remain a novelty.
The film's distributor, Alive Mind, has carved a niche for itself as a home for the esoteric and the metaphysical. While The American Ruling Class is more down to earth than many of their offerings, the ideas put forth by Lapham are as relevant and lingering as any romantic notions of the workings of the universe. Its gawky, ad hoc construction may detract for a lot of viewers, but the film does succeed in inserting nagging questions of wealth and class into your brain. Also: "Nickel & Dimed" is really catchy.
Sound and picture quality are nominal, though the rough-and-tumble nature of no-budget documentary filmmaking makes it a non-issue. There are no special features.
If Michael Moore set the standard for the modern documentary film (high or low, depending on your point of view), Lapham's American Ruling Class dances, sometimes literally, around delicate topics of social strata and elitism with a kind of bemused glee that thumbs its nose at Moore's invective and moral outrage. It comes to few conclusions, the most obvious of which is that it's (still) an advantage to be white, male, and have money to begin with—hardly a startling revelation. Most of us will have to settle for the usual dumb luck and circumstance.
Seriously flawed, but not guilty.
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