If satirists throw snowballs, then America is the broad side of a barn. Who could miss? Yet Michael Moore, the accomplished wise-ass whose credits include the award-winning 1989 documentary Roger and Me and the ongoing Fox series TV Nation, does miss in his new movie, Canadian Bacon.
Moore, who wrote, directed, and produced, has a sublime eye for the absurd in American life, such as the TV-news practice of giving catchy jingles to wars and other broadcastable crises. He is brilliant for a few moments; his genius is for skits. But a full-length film demands at least something in the way of narrative architecture, and Bacon doesn't have it. The movie is replete with hyperbolic clownishness, but taken as a whole it is really a live-action cartoon rather than a true satire. Its intelligence and plausibility vanish in a flood of unguided impishness. In the end it is shapeless and inconsequential, a testament to the mismatching of aspiration and ability.
There is a serious joke at the heart of Canadian Bacon: that American prosperity depends on an enemy against whom to mobilize. For two generations the Russians obligingly filled this role, but their collapse at the end of the Cold War meant, among other things, the trimming of American defense industries and the dislocation of workers.
That's bad news for the president of the United States (Alan Alda), who speaks in Clintonesque cadences about beating swords into plowshares and renewing the country's educational establishment. Alda's comic gifts are formidable; listening to him deliver his sharp one-liners on M*A*S*H was like drinking a perfectly dry martini. But Moore miscasts him here as a flailing buffoon who, despite his intelligent handsomeness, isn't even smart enough to practice the cynical politics of self-preservation. It's as if Mr. Magoo had been made flesh and, by some perverse miracle, installed in the White House.
The administration's brains belong to the ferally unctuous Stu Smiley (Kevin Pollak), who is a great follower of overnight tracking polls. These data suggest to him that the president needs a little help of the sort that wars historically have provided. A proposal to the Russians to return to “the good old days” of low-grade tension is perfunctorily rejected (after the visiting Kremlin dignitaries finish their barrel of finger-lickin'-good KFC extra-crispy). But a televised riot at a hockey game between an American and a Canadian team gives Smiley the idea he's been searching for.
There are times when Bacon tries to sound some of the chords of Dr. Strangelove, but it lacks that film's bitter brilliance. Moore borrows from Kubrick's movie the war rooms, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the half-crazed generals and operatives (Rip Torn is OK as Gen. Panzer, but Brad Sullivan as Gus, the maniacal hack who's spent his career manning the CIA's “Canada desk,” is deliciously over the top). What he fails to borrow is Strangelove's odd believability.
Satire's laughs, and its power to afflict the complacent and the smug, flow from its shrewd exaggerations of reality. But satire can't warp reality so much that we no longer recognize it, and it can't abandon reality altogether, because then it's just toothless fantasy — all bark and no bite. Bacon doesn't entirely detach itself from what's real, but Moore does make the mistake of thinking that sillier is always better, and he ends up pushing his movie over the falls. The idea of going to war with Canada might make a funny bit on Saturday Night Live, but it doesn't make a funny movie. It's like scraping a pat of butter over too much bread.
Yet Bacon does have its share of rich moments. As Sheriff Bud B. Boomer, whose patriotism is matched only by his spacious idiocy, John Candy is a gleeful ball of fat with a glint in his eye. When, from the bucolic Canadian shore of the Niagara River, he gazes across the water at a fuming American factory and murmurs, “Ah! Home!” he invests the line with a perfect genuineness that completes Moore's beautifully mean irony.
Rhea Perlman, as Deputy Honey, is like Carla from Cheers going through heroin withdrawal. To her chronically sharp tongue she adds a casual violence that leads to her mugging two candy stripers in a hospital. She steals one of their uniforms as a disguise, serenely unaware of how incongruous she must look with a machine gun strapped to her waist. (Her later discharge of the weapon leaves a look of release on her face that's virtually sexual.)
And Dan Aykroyd, in the latest in his series of uncredited performances, plays an officious Ontario highway patrolman who pulls over Candy's gigantic orange truck, which is scarred with English-language insults to Canada. Does Aykroyd want the graffiti removed? Do the slams offend his patriotism? No! Canada is officially bilingual, as he advises Candy, and the English disses must, by law, be accompanied by their French equivalents. Eventually the truck rumbles down the road bearing the epithet, “Mangez mes briefs!”
The movie's sharpest moments are its spoofs of TV news broadcasts about the Canadian crisis. There's the dramatic theme music, the tag phrase (“A Line in the Snow,” accompanied by a maple leaf crossed out with a red X), the sonorous anchorman whose grave intonations are mostly bleeped out by the military censor. A government propaganda spot on television shows a map of the U.S. being covered by sinister fingers of maple syrup dribbling south from Canada.
But those sorts of moments aren't numerous or coherent enough to relieve the antic tedium that makes up much of Canadian Bacon. Michael Moore may be that rare thing, an American satirist with real fangs, but he doesn't show it in this movie: He has no gift for invention, character, or well-designed narrative. His turn of mind is more literal; he needs direct access to the stuff of everyday life, from whose innumerable ludicrous details he can launch his comic blitzkriegs.
Canadian Bacon opens Sat, Nov. 11, at the Red Vic in