Director/star Morgan Spurlock’s new documentary “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?” is a lot like singer/songwriter Ben Folds’ solo debut record, “Rockin’ the Suburbs.” If that sounds like a strange analogy, let me explain.
Spurlock, whose 2004 movie “Super Size Me” blindsided the fast food industry and the box office, making a huge splash for the then-unknown independent filmmaker. He ate McDonald’s food exclusively for a month straight and measured the effects, mentally and physically, on his body. During this stunt of gross proportions, Spurlock used amusing cartoons and narration to drive home some hard-to-swallow facts about the way Americans eat.
But without a clearly defined experiment to fall back on or goal to achieve, “Where in the World” feels like a meandering movie without a clue. But, wait—the title suggests Spurlock is on a mission to the Middle East to find the world’s most wanted man! Yeah, right. It’s a conceit so ludicrous that his regular-guy charm can’t hide the fact that he doesn’t believe he will find bin Laden anymore than we do.
It is too bad that Spurlock has to hang the whole film on this silly stunt, because it leads us to false expectations as we wait for some crowning dramatic moment or great conflict. This film just doesn’t have that. What it does have—and it very nearly seeks to obscure with gimmicks—is Spurlock, who is a very likable and empathetic guy. He is a humanist, and what he does well (especially on his far-better TV show “30 Days”) is take very complicated socio-political situations and burrow them down to the simplest terms—human beings must get along with other human beings in order to live peacefully and watch their families thrive.
“30 Days” works because he conducts interviews with experts while standing in for Joe-Schmoe audience member. Then—the moneyshot. Spurlock drops carefully picked, prejudiced lab rats right into the center of the maze. One’s background is key to defining who they are, so when you force an anti-gay rights man to live with a homosexual for a month, some sympathy and understanding between the unnatural roomies is bound to happen. On the TV show, Spurlock narrates and gives context to the whole experiment.
Without an experiment in “Where in the World,” however, Spurlock wanders aimlessly, pointing a microphone to people in the streets of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. There is not a lot of new information presented, but it is interesting to hear what people are thinking on the other side of the world. One point the filmmaker makes very well is that we are so used to hearing one side of things, we often do not even consider that there may be another.
It is a simple idea, and sometimes an effective one, but just not for a feature-length film. Perhaps “Where in the World” would have worked better as an episode of “30 Days.” It is too long, and certainly does not benefit from some misplaced attempts at humor, like the hokey-jokey original music by Jon Spurney or a terribly unfunny videogame that goes on forever and pits the flying, super-powered terrorist against Spurlock in full Mortal Kombat mode.
Another bad choice was framing his point-of-view as that of an expecting father. I understand the significance of this to the film, but thinking that he would travel across the globe, leaving his wife to bear the pregnancy alone, just so he could discover what kind of a world they were bringing a child into, is—no pun intended—just plain childish. We’re all adults here. If the cogs of preproduction are turning and filming can’t be stopped, level with us. We’ll accept it. It’s another gimmick Spurlock doesn’t need.
Which brings us back to Ben Folds. “Rockin’ the Suburbs” is a fantastic record. It’s full of songs by an artist who is taking stock in his life, realizing what he has, and telling great stories with melancholy melodies. But the title of the album is too damn goofy and gives the wrong impression. Although the subjects of many of his songs may indeed reside in the suburbs, their sentiment deserves better treatment than that.
The same goes for “Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?” The name is a silly pun, and would be more appropriate if Spurlock took a satirical angle. He does not. He’s too nice. It’s not in him. Fine. But the poster for the film calls it an “adventure,” and is a stupid painted caricature of a crazy-eyed Spurlock riding a camel like it’s out of control, lassoing a ballooned-up logo. From what I understand about marketing, I believe marketing is designed to sell things to people, not drive them away. I want both Epic Records and The Weinstein Company to know that they are selling their “products” short with this kind of treatment.
It is true, Spurlock’s movie is better than its misleading ad campaign. He puts a face and a smile to people who are demonized every day by media bias. Other than that, there is not much else to learn in “Where in the World” that hasn’t been said elsewhere. And Spurlock’s take isn’t a radically different one either, so it is troubling to watch this uncomfortable balancing act between heartfelt sentiment and a need for entertainment, especially when it just doesn’t work on either account very well.
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