The antiglobalist performance guys who call themselves the Yes Men are masters of forging corporate rhetoric and media protocols. The most recent prank perpetrated by Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno (not their real names) involved an eco-warning simulacrum of The New York Post (headline: "WE'RE SCREWED"), pegged to last month's U.N. summits; their forte, however, is the phony Web site and the fraudulent PowerPoint presentation.
A sequel to their first film, The Yes Men, released to coincide with the 2004 presidential campaign, The Yes Men Fix the World continues the saga with the heroes' greatest stunt — one of them going live on BBC World in the guise of a Dow Chemical spokesman with the Pynchonian name of Jude Finisterra to announce that Dow would mark the 20th anniversary of the Bhopal chemical disaster with a $12 billion aid plan for the victims. Dow stock dropped faster than the interviewer's jaw.
The BBC, which had taken the bait of a faux Web site, blamed the Yes Men for fooling the poor people of Bhopal into thinking they would get justice. But Fix the World asks spectators to decide which hoax was crueler — the Yes Men's, which at least directed attention back to Bhopal, or Dow's. As hinted by their affirmative name, the Yes Men enact scenarios, however fleeting, of social justice. In a similar stunt, the duo impersonates a HUD representative and his flack, dropping in on a New Orleans event attended by the ever-jive Mayor Ray Nagin, with the surprise news that HUD is reopening the Ninth Ward public housing projects shut down (and later destroyed) in Katrina's wake.
These political tricksters have an additional agenda: identifying the late market über alles economist Milton Friedman and his acolytes as the enemy. (Their deadpan interviews with Friedman's true believers are the most effectively informative aspect of the movie.) But mainly, Fix the World is about the beauty of the riff. The Yes Men are funniest when addressing a straight audience, making outlandish claims in favor of the free market and the benefits of unregulated catastrophe — the Black Plague gave us capitalism! What's fascinating is spectator reaction (or lack of same). Some people laugh or register disgust; others find their outrageously mercenary ideas "refreshing." Although the Yes Men's presentation on Exxon's plan to recycle unproductive corpses as a fuel called Vivoleum — which included passing out (smelly) candles as a sample — largely bombs, an equally ludicrous demonstration of an inflatable, extremely expensive survival suit is hailed as "very cool." As one Yes Man explains, "Instead of freaking out, they just took our business cards." People want to believe.
The Yes Men Fix the World ends on a utopian note with last November's distribution of a fake, postdated New York Times (among the thrilling headlines, "IRAQ WAR ENDS" and "Nation Sets Its Sights on Building Sane Economy"). Random New Yorkers are amazed to find good news — strategically timed to celebrate the equally impossible election of Barack Obama. The Yes Men have pulled off another coup, although, watching Fix the World, my own pleasure was mitigated by the brief appearance some minutes earlier by one of ACORN's founders — an unintentional reminder that left-wing tactics, whether community organizing or guerrilla theater, can be appropriated by the right.
Writing on the ACORN gotcha tapes in a recent issue of The Nation, Chris Hayes referred to the Borat Effect — "human beings' intense socialization to be helpful and not rock the boat, even when confronted with someone doing something objectionable, outrageous, or preposterous." Although the Yes Men also draw on this syndrome, they almost never draw blood. They're good guys who operate in the realm of materialized fantasy. Typically targeting some corporate Goliath, their performance pieces offer a fleeting sense of what utopia might feel like if authority told the truth and operated under a regime of social justice. In this, Bichlbaum and Bonanno are essentially entertainers who strut and fret their hour on the media stage, delighting sympathetic audiences with the possibility of change.
The Yes Men's virtuoso naturalism is essentially an exercise in pleasurable illusion. The real realists are the college clowns who pranked ACORN — the rich and privileged laughing at the poor and disenfranchised. What's more, as made for YouTube, amplified by the Fox News megaphone, and set to the news cycle drumbeat, their crude stunt had actual repercussions.