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The Boston Phoenix Moore the Merrier.

In "The Big One," downsizing does matter.

By Peter Keough

APRIL 13, 1998:  With the Paula Jones case at last dismissed, and special prosecutor Kenneth Starr apparently losing his grip, maybe we can focus again on the people who are really getting screwed in this country. That would be just fine with Michael Moore: his hip, grassroots documentary The Big One, and not the overrated and pallid Primary Colors, is the political comedy to watch these days.

Like his controversial 1989 hit Roger & Me, the film features the disingenuously self-effacing Moore as the crusading blue-collar Everyman from Flint, Michigan. His seat-of-the-pants camera crew in tow, he hunts down and mostly fails to collar the corporate honchos responsible for closing plants and putting regular guys like himself out of work.

That this downsizing has propelled him into a lucrative career with these two films (three, if you count the unfortunate precursor to Wag the Dog, Canadian Bacon) and the short-lived cult-favorite TV show TV Nation is an irony Moore does not pursue. Plenty of other ironies remain, though, and Moore indulges them with typical shambling acerbity, mellowed this time with an almost convincing compassion (he actually hugs somebody). For better and worse, The Big One is less vitriolic than its predecessor, less overbearing, but funnier and more humane.

The title refers not to Moore's girth or his ego, both still considerable though more appealingly packaged than in his first film, but to one of several bits he enacts in readings from his bestseller Downsize This: Random Threats from an Unarmed Terrorist, whose publicity tour is the starting point for the film. It's an alternative name for the United States, one of many suggestions he proposes as a makeover of the national image (others include changing the national anthem to Queen's "We Will Rock You," and replacing the bald eagle with the bald man). That and a routine about campaign contributions from bogus groups accepted by undiscriminating candidates ("Abortionists for Pat Buchanan," "Satan Worshippers for Dole") are amusing but dated and familiar from his appearances on talk shows a few years back.

More trenchant are his reports from the trenches, his side trips from his promotional visits to bookstores and radio and TV appearances to the casualties of the recent economic boom. Moore's argument is that our skyrocketing stock market has been achieved at the cost of massive layoffs of domestic workers and the relocation of factories to the greener pastures of cheaper, non-unionized, more exploitable labor, often in Third World countries. Truth proves stranger than satire as he rallies the laid-off employees of the Pay Day candy bar factory of Centralia, Illinois ("Where every day is Pay Day," as a town-boostering sign proclaims), or interviews a scary ex-con in a shopping mall about his work in prison taking reservations over the phone for a major airline.

Here Moore sees the makings of a grand corporate strategy: shut down all the factories, forcing most of those out of work to turn to crime, turn the factories into prisons, then put the criminal ex-employees back to work for nothing when they're incarcerated. At first hilarious, the notion becomes unsettlingly plausible as Moore strives to corner corporate CEOs to bestow them with "Downsizer of the Year" awards, only to be stymied by their myrmidon-like PR and human-resources representatives.

He scores one coup, however, and it's a major one. Phil Knight, chairman of the formerly PC but now image-beleaguered Nike Corporation, agrees to be interviewed -- he has a death wish, or perhaps his conscience is bothering him. Confronted with his company's policy of manufacturing its product in Asian countries, where it hires teenage girls for peanuts, Knight claims that Americans don't want to make shoes and sees nothing wrong with underpaying 14-year-olds.

Like the Bob Eubanks moment in Roger & Me, it seems too good to be true -- and Moore will undoubtedly face the same criticism that he has selectively edited, has played fast and loose with the truth, and, in short, has been one-sided. As indeed he has -- the real subject of The Big One is Moore himself.

Yet it's a more endearing, no longer mean-spirited Moore; when it comes to "pets or meat," he comes down in favor of the former, showing solidarity with the unionizing Borders bookstore employees he joins in covert meetings, charming audiences with tales of his run-ins with the nuns in Catholic school, and pointing out how on the dust jacket of his book the publisher airbrushed a manicure onto his fingernails but didn't do a thing for his double chin. Not to worry, though: the vain curmudgeon persists. In the paperback version of Downsize This, the offending feature is cropped off.

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