Tora Bora or Bust

Photo: Daniel Marracino/Courtesy of The Weinstein Company

Watching Morgan Spurlock’s jokey first-person documentary Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?, I felt a second head sprout from my shoulder like in the old horror film The Manster. The first head watched Spurlock waylay women swathed in black in a Pakistan shopping mall—“Do you know where Osama bin Laden is?”—and cringed at the director’s facetiousness. The second said, “Sniff all you like at the Ugly American, but a narrator with a clownish persona might be the political documentary’s best hope.” The second head went on to say that conventional docs—even brilliant ones, like the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side—reach limited audiences and preach largely to the converted. But barreling blowhard Michael Moore stirred things up, and so did Spurlock when he clogged his arteries eating nothing but fast food in the gross-out odyssey Super Size Me. Maybe Spurlock, who doesn’t have Moore’s strident political agenda, can open the eyes of people who don’t read highbrow magazines or listen to the BBC. Maybe he can demonstrate to Americans how much a huge segment of the world’s population despises us—and what we can do to begin to clean up the mess. The first head said, “You’re talking about politics, not art,” and the second head split off and pitched the first into a volcano.

The political head having triumphed, it will now concede that Spurlock is a slippery character whose chief motivation is to make himself a brand name. He begins Where in the World…? by telling us that his wife is pregnant and that the U.S. government’s $25 million bounty on bin Laden would come in handy vis-à-vis private school. He poses rather obvious questions (I’m quoting from a tie-in book): “What drove [bin Laden] to give up the cushy life in favor of waging jihad? For that matter, what the hell is a jihad? What’s a fatwa? What do other Muslims think of Osama? Do they all hate us, or is it just a lunatic fringe?” Before setting off on his fact-finding journey to Morocco, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, Spurlock tones up, learns how to react when someone yells “Bomb!” and submits on camera to a battery of shots for yellow fever, diphtheria, etc. Then he battles bin Laden in a rock-’em-sock-’em video simulation that ends with the arch-villain sprouting a jet pack and blasting off, presumably for points east.

This is all very amusing, but the heart of the film is this faux-innocent’s interviews with professors, journalists, shopkeepers, and passersby. Egypt—our great ally as well as the birthplace of Mohamed Atta, Al-Zawahiri, and the Islamist-jihadist philosopher Sayyid Qutb—emerges as a prototype of repression: People hate the U.S. because it funds the bogus democracy, but many hate bin Laden, too, for helping their leaders justify further repression. The Palestinians say they don’t care for bin Laden because they’re a secular society, but it doesn’t hurt to have someone beating the drums against Israel—whose “settlers” subsequently tell Spurlock it’s God’s will that they plunk themselves down on disputed borders. Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Jews don’t share their thoughts on bin Laden because they’re busy putting their black hats over the camera lens and physically attacking Spurlock. It’s an accomplishment to look more repulsive than the Taliban.

Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? is mostly a travelogue of places you don’t want to visit, like the Israeli schoolhouse blown up by a rocket or the Saudi Arabian square where kids play ball in the afternoons after the blood of the morning’s executions has run down the drain. Spurlock’s pregnant wife phones to say she’s getting bigger, then he packs his bags and heads deeper into bin Laden country—Afghanistan’s Tora Bora, where the U.S. had the Al Qaeda leader trapped, and the mountains of Pakistan, where some people clearly do know where bin Laden is but would be even less friendly than the ultra-Orthodox Jews. After the Army allows him to shoot off guns and even—woo-hoo!—launch a rocket in bin Laden’s general direction (our tax dollars at work), Spurlock punks out. Apparently, he didn’t want to end with a video of his own beheading.

The film is a hodgepodge, and it closes with a whimper. But along the way some lucid voices slip through: the Afghan who recounts the broken promises of an American ambassador to rebuild a school, the Saudi suffocating under a government (our allies) in which there’s no separation of church and state. The movie made me think—as I often do—of Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia. Gray rivets us with the story of Pol Pot’s psychotic purges, but that’s not how he begins. He begins with himself as an out-of-work actor hoping for a part in a movie, and listening—eager to make a good impression—to director Roland Joffé hold forth on the film’s setting. Would we listen as intently without the People magazine point of entry? Would we watch Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? without the clueless American father-to-be? Would this review be as lively if it didn’t begin with an image from a grade-Z Japanese horror movie?

The middling romantic comedy Smart People, which centers on a hyperintellectual dysfunctional family, is of interest chiefly for the first post-Juno role of Ellen Page. A prominent critic dubbed the actress “frighteningly talented,” and it remains to be seen which side will win out: the talented or the frightening. As the straitlaced Young Republican daughter of a misanthropic professor (Dennis Quaid), she talks much like Juno, in an exaggeratedly blasé monotone with certain words stretched out to convey that she’s thinking. She stands back from her character’s emotions—she irons her lines out with irony. This worked in Hard Candy, where she mocked her pedophile captive with sociological clichés, and in Juno, where the point was to show that however adult the pregnant teen talked, her feelings were a tangle. (It was a point that “It”-girl screenwriter Diablo Cody blunted by giving nearly everyone else the same inflections.) Here it kind of works, but the echoes get in the way. Will she prove talented enough—like, say, Katharine Hepburn—to transcend her mannerisms?

The script by Mark Poirier doesn’t help by pulling Page’s character out of mothballs: the uptight female who needs to be loosened up, in this case by Quaid’s wastrel adopted brother (Thomas Haden Church)—who introduces her to pot and alcohol. The brother also worries that as a member of the Young Republicans, she has “never cheated or stole anything.” (Insert your own Republican joke here.) It’s a good thing that Church’s groggy rhythms are so winning, and that Quaid freshens up the musty alcoholic professor (who seems inspired by Simon Gray’s Butley) with his unquenchably youthful petulance. The movie, directed by Noam Murro, has its bright spots—or, rather, its brightly dark spots, since it’s best at its nastiest. When Quaid falls for a doctor who was once his student (a low-key and appealing Sarah Jessica Parker) and begins to emerge from his stupor, Smart People puts you into one, with everyone wisecracking through tears.

In a vile-movie competition between Michael Haneke’s Funny Games and Vadim Perelman’s The Life Before Her Eyes, Haneke’s film would win—but only because he’s working so much harder to be noxious. Perelman, who also directed the punishing House of Sand and Fog, clearly regards himself as a life-affirming humanist: He lingers over bodies of bullet-ridden high-school students to drive home the idea that opening fire on random teenagers is a bad thing. Trapped by a sociopathic student along with her best friend (Eva Amurri) in a school bathroom, spunky 17-year-old Diana (Evan Rachel Wood) is forced to make a terrible choice—whereupon we cut to the anniversary of the tragedy fifteen years later, when the older Diana (Uma Thurman) is an art-history professor and the overprotective mother of a radiant little girl. Perelman moves back and forth between the younger Diana (whom he rather fetishizes) and the increasingly disoriented older one, with breaks for high-resolution shots of flowers, bees, etc., as well as that school-bathroom confrontation, which functions in the narrative like a striptease. If you haven’t caught on to the gimmick after ten minutes, the Zombies’ “She’s Not There” is all over the soundtrack. In between snorting and rolling your eyes, you can pass the time pitying Thurman, who has to emote in a vacuum, and admiring Wood—who is open and unaffected, the anti–Ellen Page.

In The Forbidden Kingdom, a teenage martial-arts maven (Michael Angarano) passes through a portal in time and is trained by Jackie Chan and Jet Li to go up against the Jade Emperor and free the imprisoned imp-sage the Monkey King (also Li). Having marveled at these stars in their prime, I’m too aware of the occasional stunt double and the way the shots end right before what would have been the most thrilling acrobatics. But now I sound like Jade(d) Critic! Once past the clunky prologue, the film is great fun, with a good balance between computer effects and athleticism. The best part is when Chan resurrects his drunken-master fighting style and goes hand-to-hand with the stoic but furious Li. Given their histories, every blow lands like a caress.

After eating three McDonald’s meals a day for 30 days, Morgan Spurlock found himself 25 pounds fatter and his cholesterol 40 percent higher. Fortunately, he had an in-house nutritionist—chef Alex Jamieson, who was then his girlfriend and now his wife. She put him on an eight-week cleansing diet—anti–refined flour and sugar, pro–beans and fiber—that became the basis of her cookbook The Great American Detox Diet. Spurlock doesn’t visit McDonald’s anymore, but that doesn’t mean he’s repudiated all fast food. “I’d rather have a burger from a place that uses fresh ground beef … You know, like In-N-Out Burger,” he told Time.

Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden?
Directed by Morgan Spurlock.
The Weinstein Company. PG-13.

Smart People
Directed by Noam Murro.
Miramax. R.

The Life Before Her Eyes
Directed by Vadim Perelman.
Magnolia. R.

The Forbidden Kingdom
Directed by Rob Minkoff.
Lions Gate. PG-13.


Tora Bora or Bust