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The Yes Men (2003)

Changing the world one prank at a time.

Directed by:

Chris Smith

Dan Ollman

Sarah Price

Rating: 6/10

Running Time: 80 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: TBA

Country: United States

In the lead-up to the US presidential election in 2000, two young media-savvy prankster-activists named Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno set up a website which closely mimicked and subtly spoofed the campaign site of George W. Bush, provoking an irate Bush to respond in interview that “there ought to be limits to freedom” – a startlingly unguarded admission from the man who would be 'the leader of the free world'. The success of this political stunt rested not merely in the satirical humour of the site, but the way in which its target was baited into revealing something about his views (and his humour threshold) that he might have preferred remain hidden. In other words, the comic duo who call themselves 'the Yes Men' pulled off their greatest coup by getting Bush to do their work for them and ridicule himself in public.

The pair's next series of pranks is documented in 'The Yes Men', shot guerilla-style on digital video by the makers of 'American Job' and 'American Movie'. Parodying the website of the World Trade Orgnisation with a plausible sounding domain name, Bichlbaum and Bonanno found themselves being mistaken for the real thing and were invited to send WTO representatives for various international television and conference appearances – and so, using a number of improbable pseudonyms (Hank Hardy Unruh, Granwyth Hulatbari, Kinnithrung Spratt), Andy would show up and, in slick corporate lectures accompanied by vogueish PowerPoint presentations, reduce to the most absurd of extremes the WTO line on issues like the third world labour force, the international supply of food, or the challenge to globalisation of local difference. With a completely straight face, Andy argues before his business audiences for, amongst other things, a free market in votes, the remote control of foreign workforces via wire sensors inserted into the body, and the recycling of first world excrement as third world food.

'The Yes Men' is an entertaining and often hilarious set of highjinks, tapping into the sophomoric thrill of an elaborate practical joke going – or at least seeming to go – undiscovered. Whether it works, however, as a serious documentary on the iniquities of globalised free trade is another matter altogether. For while no doubt the WTO does indeed peddle injustices on a massive scale, 'The Yes Men' documents a spoof rather than the real thing, so that the only perspective it gives on the WTO is filtered through an exaggerated distortion offered by avowedly antagonistic fraudsters. When they fail to elicit from the WTO itself a response as tellingly preposterous as Bush's was to their previous stunt, the pair resort to suggesting that the reception extended to them by their hosts constitutes proof of the world business community's unquestioning acquiescence to WTO authority. Yet, despite at one point satirising the cultural insensitivity of the WTO, the Yes Men seem themselves incapable of recognising that the “superpolite” silence with which the Austrian and Finnish audiences greet them does not reflect kow-towing approval, but rather a combination of bemused embarrassment and European reserve (as can easily be detected from the stunned expressions on their faces).

An early soundbite from Michael Moore makes it fairly clear where this film's political allegiances lie, but the film also suffers from one of Moore's most notorious shortcomings as a documentarian – for with a bit less clownish joking and a bit more factual analysis, 'The Yes Men' need not have undermined its own credibility. After all, how seriously can one really take the arguments of a couple of con artists? The publicity which this film generates might just encourage some viewers to investigate further the issue of globalisation for themselves – but what is more certain is that it will effectively put Mike and Andy out of business as incognito pranksters – unless, of course, they go back to the anonymity of the web.

It's Got: Parodies, pranks, and a glittery gold suit with a giant phallus attached.

It Needs: To include some hard facts amidst all the hyperbole and highjinks.

Alternatives:

American Job, Roger & Me, The Corporation

Summary

A hilarious subversion of the World Trade Organisation – but better, perhaps, not to entrust such weighty issues to a couple of confidence tricksters.

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