“Yes Men”, a vapid documentary that captures the “see how far we can take this” ethos, is about the efforts of Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum as they impersonate members of the World Trade Organization at conferences and lectures around the world in 2002. If you don’t know what the WTO is, or if you just don’t care, don’t bother with this film. The few notable moments, pranks that the rest of the movie build slowly up to, are not worth the price of admission.
Some background: the “Yes Men” started a Web site mocking the WTO and its position on fundamental issues that affect labor and trade in third-world countries. When the fake site began to receive e-mails requesting that a representative speak at various global corporate conferences, the Yes Men decided to attend and film their escapades.
This idea would make a better one-time TV special, something along the lines of an extra-long “Punk’d,” than a major motion picture. While they get away with many extreme and ridiculous statements throughout the course of their speeches and European TV appearances, the joke behind “Yes Men” is not wholly captivating. The film fails to be as interesting as Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” for example, because it is not nearly as well-made and because the Yes Men’s pranks are easily executed and unoriginal.
Bichlbaum, who generally plays the WTO rep in pranks, parades in front of a textiles conference in Finland wearing a gold “executive leisure” suit with a giant phallus attached. It allows the manager to “stay in touch” with his workers, no matter what third-world country they’re in, he says. Though the scene is supposed to be shocking and humourous, it is ultimately uneventful and anticlimactic. The corporate executives watching barely react — or at least the camera does a poor job of catching their shock.
As the film goes on and the Yes Men engage in more pranks, the audience begins to pity the employees who are the unknowing victims of their shenanigans. It’s like “punking” Justin Timberlake’s mom — sure she’s rich and materialistic, but who really cares about her? Can she help it that she is, essentially, a slave to her son’s career? Can the corporate employees be faulted for the beliefs of a few top executives when they’re just trying to earn a living?
Filming the grass-roots efforts of Bichlbaum and Bonnano is an interesting concept, but in practice it falls flat. The movie is comprised of multiple scenes of the pair struggling to be engaging, shopping for suits and lounging around their various pads in Europe. In order for their rebellion to have enough of an impact, it would have to be done with more force, conviction and extremism. Aiming at higher rungs in the corporate ladder wouldn’t be bad either.
Has good documentary filmmaking, then, become dependent on the bullying, intense tactics of Moore? Not entirely. In fact, Moore appears in the film. But because “Yes Men” passively let the invitations they received on their Web site dictate their course of action, the film’s moments of glory are eclipsed by a pervasive sense that the pranks are not having any larger effect. And the film struggles to prove this wrong.
Unfortunately, the indifference of the corporate employees seems to have rubbed off on the Yes Men, who lack Moore’s conviction when attacking the WTO. This is reflected in the film itself, whose plot is less suited for an 80-minute movie than a quick conversation over coffee at a corporate conference. Just as long as the coffee’s “fair trade.”