Doh! Canada! A 'Simpsons'-Style Spoof On Our Enemy To The North Copyright 1995 The Buffalo News
Ronald Ehmke September 23, 1995

Canadian Bacon Rating:* * * *

Michael Moore's "Canadian Bacon" is packed to the gills with great one-liners only the citizens of a border city like Buffalo could love. They're pointed and fiendishly clever and none of your out-of-town relatives will get them, so the movie will fail miserably. Ah, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

"Bacon" is the second feature from writer/director Moore. His first was "Roger & Me," which was made for 75 cents and went on to become the highest-grossing documentary in history. For a brief period, various people in high and low places inexplicably expected Moore to become some sort of fabulously profitable comedy tycoon.

Instead he made this sometimes hilarious but cursed film, which was shelved for nearly two years, and then turned his attention to producing the sometimes hilarious but cursed television series "TV Nation," which bore the dubious distinction of sinking to the bottom of the ratings on not one but two networks. Neither project is as good as "Roger & Me" fans would like, but both are commendable efforts.

There are few people with Moore's clout taking the kind of risks he does, so I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, the reigning comedy tycoons these days are apolitical neurotics like Jerry Seinfeld, obsessively mapping the trivia of daily life, and smug frat boys like David Letterman, whose hip detachment masks old-fashioned minority-bashing.

Moore shares Seinfeld's interest in closely observed details and Letterman's ironic stance, but with vastly different results. In "Canadian Bacon" he explores the premise that the post-Cold War United States needs a new enemy.

Addressing the people of Niagara Falls during a close-out sale at a newly defunct munitions factory, President Alan Alda pledges to "turn off the war machine and turn on our children." No way, Al: What the nation wants is a decent military intervention. "Not a real war, just a little tension to help people forget about . . . things," Alda concedes.

But the Russians aren't interested anymore; their new concerns are KFC, MTV and VH-1. After ruling out Mao ("dead," an adviser reports), the ayatollah ("dead") and Jane Fonda ("reformed"), a team of experts targets our benign neighbors to the north for a full-scale propaganda blitz.

"Canadians: They Walk Among Us!" one television spot warns, as images of Peter Jennings and Alex Trebek fill the screen. Another paints a fate too grim to contemplate: "Mayonnaise on everything, winter 11 months a year, Anne Murray all day, every day."

At its best, "Bacon" resembles a feature-length live-action episode of "The Simpsons." Not a great episode, mind you, but a pretty good one: the kind that makes you marvel at the writers' range of references. At its worst, it's closer to one of those instantly dated late-'60s offspring of "Dr. Strangelove," like the film version of "Catch-22," where the satire misses its target more often than not. (Does Moore really expect a 1995 audience to guffaw at a Bobby Goldsboro song?)

One hallmark of such movies was their celebrity-studded casts. "Canadian Bacon" has Alda (not exactly the box office king he used to be), the late John Candy (who died shortly after the film was shot, and whose ghostly presence here conveys an unintended sadness) and Rhea Perlman (playing a gentler version of her sitcom persona).

Candy and Perlman are Moore's version of Homer and Marge Simpson, if you will. But the Niagara Falls sheriff and his "Deputy Honey" simply aren't engaging characters. We don't care about them as people, so they fail to provide the necessary human dimension to the more global satire. If Perlman's Honey were as sharp-toothed as the Carla she played on "Cheers," for instance, the scene in which she's a "hostage" confronted with quality health care, smiling candy stripers and an autographed teddy bear from Gordon Lightfoot might have soared much higher.

Rip Torn, Kevin Pollak and James Belushi show up in smaller roles, along with some interesting though less well-known character actors like Bill Nunn and Kevin J. O'Connor. That last duo joins Candy for an unforgettable version of Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A.," consisting entirely of the four words in its title. Nunn (a veteran of several Spike Lee movies) also delivers a pair of casual digressions about the chances for black men in hockey and action films that are considerably more provocative than "Pulp Fiction's" much-quoted yammerings about Big Macs.

Best of all are a pair of cameos by Dan Aykroyd and comic Steven Wright as two quintessential Canadians. I'm resisting the urge to quote their scenes at length, because I don't want to spoil the jokes.

Which brings me back to "Bacon's" fatal flaw in terms of box office potential. The movie is built on the notion that U.S. citizens are completely ignorant of Canadian culture. But that's not a gag, it's a fact; consequently, 80 percent of the film's best jokes -- about everything from Zamboni machines to the pronunciation of the letter "o" -- won't mean a thing to most folks south of, say, the New York State Thruway.

You may be wondering about that four-star rating, given the film's many missteps. Consider the extra half-star a sign of ongoing faith in Moore as a chance-taker, or a special Buffalo surcharge because local audiences will have so much fun spotting familiar landmarks and catching those more obscure references.

Or look at this way: "Bacon" is worth 31/2 American stars, which counts as four Canadian.

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