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Review: Michael Moore loses his way in the optimistic ‘Where to Invade Next’

A scene from Michael Moore's "Where to Invade Next."

A scene from Michael Moore’s “Where to Invade Next.”

(Robert D. Ward, CIV / TIFF)

Michael Moore has said the early inspiration for “Where to Invade Next” came to him as a 19-year-old with a Eurail pass, astounded by the free healthcare he received in Sweden for a broken toe.

It makes sense, then, that his new movie has the feel of an activist travelogue. How much filmgoers enjoy it may depend on how much they enjoy the mixture of smugness and naivete in a college sophomore.

Moore gained fame with his earlier documentaries about corporate greed, guns and foreign policy that were fueled by a righteous anger. In “Where to Invade Next,” he takes a more optimistic stance. Shedding the rage is fine — even rabble rousers are allowed to evolve — but in losing that anger, Moore has also lost focus.

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The director superficially explores such issues as healthcare in the countries he “invades” with his cameras — “Where to Invade Next” also advocates for gourmet school lunches (France), no standardized tests (Finland), gender parity (Iceland), humane incarceration policies (Norway), decriminalization of drugs (Portugal), longer vacations (Italy) and much, much more, together creating a smorgasbord of mostly European public policies without ever making a rigorous or compelling case on any one topic.

Perhaps a documentary that spends its nearly two-hour running time on the societal benefits of vacation — less sickness, higher productivity, better-written movie reviews — would be worth watching. Instead, Moore treats each individual idea with all the depth and sophistication of Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again hat. Occasionally, he entertains, but he almost never provokes any kind of reflection.

“Where to Invade Next” begins with a cartoonish prologue, as Moore stages a meeting of the Joint Chiefs of Staff seeking his advice on, yes, where to invade next. His proposal, to become a one-man army visiting other countries and learning from them, sounds like a great idea for a TV series. As a feature film, however, it’s wholly unsatisfying.

Moore has always been a flamboyant storyteller, but “Where to Invade Next” lacks the narrative urgency of his 2004 critique of the war on terror, “Fahrenheit 9/11,” and his 2002 exploration of gun violence, “Bowling for Columbine.” Instead of alarming his audience, the director this time wants to inspire us.

Examining thorny problems is the currency of most political documentaries, but a more optimistic approach to the form is possible — another 2015 movie, “He Named Me Malala,” manages to create an inspirational experience while tackling tough themes.

When Moore succeeds at crafting feel-good moments, it’s thanks to some well chosen interview subjects — one effortlessly sexy Italian couple sharing snapshots from their several weeks of paid vacation are a living endorsement of la dolce vita. Italy’s unemployment rate, alas, never comes up, nor do any of the other economic challenges the European Union is confronting.

The gentle, civilized response of a Norwegian man who lost his son to a horrific act of violence serves as a kind of balm for every nerve that blood-thirsty American cable news pundits have rattled. There is another way to respond to terror, Moore wants us to know. But before we reach any kind of nuanced understanding, he has hopped along to another country.

As in his previous films, Moore appears on camera in the role of the slobby, dumbfounded — and occasionally just dumb — American. With each country he visits to steal its ideas, he plants a giant, tacky American flag that his hosts are too polite not to accept.

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In its best moments, the movie reflects Moore’s deft comedic touch, as in a scene of him showing disgusted French schoolchildren photographs of American school lunches. There may be no greater rebuke to the notion of American exceptionalism than a shot of Moore trying to persuade the skeptical children, enjoying their cheese course, to take a sip of his Coke.

rebecca.keegan@latimes.com

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‘Where to Invade Next’

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MPAA rating: Rated R for language, some violent images, drug and brief graphic nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes

Playing: ArcLight, Hollywood


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