Judge Adam Arseneau says "No."
Changing the world one prank at a time.
Smart, sarcastic, and subversive, The Yes Men is a different kind of left-wing documentary than one expects to see today. Rather than bashing heads open with aggressive rage and hatred, it opts for a good-natured ribbing of its subjects, going for subtle deriding rather than declaring all-out war on its subject. Think of it like an episode of Punk'd performed by graduate students of economics and social studies, playing practical jokes on world finance and globalization suits.
Subtle, it is. Funny, it isn't always. But is The Yes Men something you should say "yes" to?
Facts of the Case
Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno first grew to fame in the subversive counterculture movement during the 2000 election. They spearheaded a satirical George W. Bush website that duplicated the design of the official campaign website, but offered information of a slightly more critical bent. The website soon grew in notoriety, especially when the Bush campaign tried to have it shut down, a request which was promptly forwarded directly into the waiting hands of the media. After the success of this website, the pair was given access to a new domain to muckrake…a World Trade Organization website. Bichlbaum and Bonanno set to work, creating a nearly identical page as the official WTO site, but with slightly more "interesting" content.
Then, something astonishing happened. The pair started receiving official e-mails from agriculture organizations, textile associations, television stations, and other economic and trade-related industries, asking them to weigh in on issues, give interviews, or host seminars. The site was so effective in its cloning of the official site that many people did not even realize they were on a satirical website!
So the boys did the only thing they could do in the situation: They tried to answer the questions as best they could, as "representatives" from the WTO, feeding their particular brand of liberal idealism back into the corporate machine under the guise of world trade expertise. They took the gag even farther when, using assumed names and wearing suits purchased from the local Salvation Army, they begin flying to locations worldwide to offer conferences and lectures on world trade, making each presentation more ridiculous, maniacal, and unbelievable than the next. And every single time, without exception, the corporate world ate it up with a spoon, never once realizing they were being actively made fun of!
The Yes Men is a documentary chronicling Bichlbaum and Bonanno's unbelievable adventures into counterculture and satire—a chance to battle the talking heads on their own turf, as undercover infiltrators of human decency into the globalization movement.
The Yes Men is a peculiar little film. It isn't funny enough to be like Jackass or a hidden camera blooper show, but it isn't political enough to be a left-wing piece of documentary filmmaking, like a Michael Moore film or a Noam Chomsky lecture. Somehow, it exists in the netherworld between these two points, an amorphous mixture of intellectualism and juvenile pranks. A good example is when the Yes Men hijack a textiles show to debut the WTO's newest invention, a gold spandex suit with a giant inflatable penis (but of course, the penis has a television set built in, to maximize efficiency in controlling migrant third workers). This bizarre melding of graduate studies and dick jokes makes for a truly unique documentary experience.
It is hard to even describe the film as political. In fact, one is hardly sure exactly what the Yes Men stand for in terms of their social beliefs, other than desiring to mock the World Trade Organization. Little time is spent explaining the tenets for and against globalization, because the film opts to focus on the Yes Men themselves, and exactly how they managed to pull off their subversive pranks and get away with them. Really, the film is little more a documentary on how exactly to fake one's identity and get away with lecturing at boring and dull conferences on agribusiness and economic growth. Does anyone actually want to spend time doing something like that?
Therein lies the big problem with The Yes Men, a film which ultimately fails to be funny or socially compelling, refusing to take a firm side on the issues beyond a general left-wing sense of righteousness. Okay, the Yes Men are against globalization and world trade, but the film spends almost no time articulating this opinion and their rationalization of going after their targets. Heck, twenty minutes of the documentary is spent with the duo talking about, designing, sewing, and manufacturing the giant gold penis suit. The result is that by the time the suit is actually unveiled in front of its target audience—a bemused group of businessmen in Finland—the joke has lost all steam or relevance. You can barely even remember what the joke was supposed to be in the first place, which really sums up the movie as a whole.
Admittedly, there are some deliciously hilarious and subtle bits in The Yes Men, like when the boys visit the leader of an anti-globalization organization to seek advice on how to plan their assault. Unbeknownst to the group leader, he was actually the "opponent" in a previously televised debate against one of the Yes Men, who at the time was passing himself off as a World Trade Organization public relations officer, arguing the most inane and bizarre theories on economic development on national television in Europe. The scene in which the Yes Men play back the interview tape, and the man's eyes go back and forth slowly from the screen to their faces, then back to the screen again, is worth the price of admission.
You have to admire the tenacity of these two guys, who poker-face their way through the most inane speeches in front of some of the most powerful and influential financiers on the planet, all the while basically committing massive international identity fraud. From a con man's point of view, these two are brilliant. But overall, there isn't really much to this film to pique the interest. The gags are slightly amusing, but they are few and far between. Most of the film is spent watching the Yes Men make phone calls, shop for clothing, stay up all night writing fake speeches, and do other banal and menial tasks that fail in every way to be funny, interesting, or politically savvy. Yawn.
The anamorphic widescreen transfer is decent enough, with reasonable clarity and picture definition, though graininess can a problem now and again. (The film has the look of being shot on digital video, but I was unable to verify this.) Colors are at the tail end of being washed-out, but still within reasonable limits for a documentary. Only one audio mode is featured on the disc, an English Dolby Digital 2.0 surround mode which is completely adequate for the needs of the film. Audio is neither too loud nor quiet, with clear dialogue and reasonable distribution across the channels. This is documentary-standard stuff, and nothing to get excited about.
There are two extras included on the DVD: a sequence of deleted scenes, and a feature-length commentary with the Yes Men and directors Chris Smith, Dan Ollman, and Sarah Price. Why a film like this needs three directors I cannot imagine—it seems like three directors too many. The commentary is more of the same semi-interesting observations and slightly amusing anecdotes dubbed over a film full of semi-interesting observations and slightly amusing anecdotes, so its effectiveness is questionable. Still, a commentary track is never a feature to take for granted.
Though its even-handedness helps the film avoid the knee-jerk loathing that surrounds more manipulative leftist documentary filmmakers, the same even-handedness robs The Yes Men of a centralized ethos and a point of view. The Yes Men is a cute enough film, but what was the point of it all? Beyond a good-natured ribbing on stuck-up financial officers and bankers, the film feels like it accomplishes nothing.
Comparisons to Michael Moore's films are inevitable given the similar social slant and sarcastic sensibilities (and the fact that Moore himself appears in the film as a talking head), but at least films like Roger And Me and Bowling For Columbine make a point and stand by it. The Yes Men tries to play the same game but without offending anyone, which robs the film of any teeth or substance. With a bit more chutzpah, this film could have been tops.
The Yes Men is a maybe, like a hilarious and brilliant joke that nobody gets. You have to appreciate the spirit in which the film was made, but that's about it. I am probably taking this film to task much more harshly than it deserves, because all in all, The Yes Men is not a bad rental if you feel the need for some intellectual chicanery.
Not exactly guilty, but definitely some sort of probation until the Yes Men grow a pair.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary Featuring the Yes Men (Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno) with Directors Chris Smith, Dan Ollman, and Sarah Price
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