Copyright 1989 Roger Ebert
Roger & Me December 1989
Roger Ebert

Rating: * * * *

The peculiar genius of Roger & Me is not that it's a funny film or an angry film, or even a film with a point to make-- although it is all three of those things. It connects because it's a revenge comedy, a film in which the stinkers get their come uppance at last. It generates the same kind of laughter that Jack Nicholson inspired in that immortal scene where he told the waitress what she could do with the chicken salad. It allows the audience to share in the delicious sensation of getting even.

The movie was made by Michael Moore, a native of Flint, Michigan, the birthplace of General Motors. As GM closed 11 plants in Flint and laid off some 33,000 workers, Moore got mad-- and this is his response. But it's not a dreary documentary about hard times in the Rust Belt. It's a stinging comedy that sticks in the knife of satire, and twists.

The ostensible subject of the film is the attempt by Moore to get an interview with Roger Smith, chairman of General Motors. We know right away that this is one interview that is unlikely to take place. Moore, a ramshackle man-mountain who fancies baseball caps and overflowing Hush Puppies, wanders through the film like a babe in toyland. He's the kind of guy who gets in an elevator in GM headquarters in Detroit and is surprised when the button for the top floor--Smith's office-- doesn't light up when it's pressed. The closest he gets to Smith is a slick, oily GM public relations man, who explains why the layoffs are regrettable but necessary. (It goes without saying that the spokesman himself is eventually laid off.)

Denied access to Smith, Roger & Me pokes around elsewhere in Flint. It follows a deputy sheriff on his rounds as he evicts unemployed auto workers. It covers a "Flint Pride" parade that marches depressingly past the boarded-up store windows of downtown. It listens to enthusiastic spokesmen for Auto World, an indoor amusement park where Flint citizens can visit a replica of their downtown as it used to look. It listens as a civic booster boasts that Flint's new Hyatt Hotel has escalators and "big tenants" in the lobby-- just like the Hyatts in Atlanta and Chicago. The hotel and amusement park are supposed to create a tourism industry for Flint, but the biggest convention booked into the hotel is the state Scrabble tournament, and then Auto World goes out of business. The rueful Chamber of Commerce type speculates that asking people to come to Flint for Auto World "is sort of like asking them to come to Alaska for Exxon World."

Many celebrities wander through the film, brought to Flint by big fees to cheer people up. Anita Bryant sings, Pat Boone suggests that the unemployed workers might become Amway distributors and Ronald Reagan has pizza with the jobless but forgets to pick up the check.

Meanwhile, some resourceful victims fight back. A woman advertises "Bunnies as Pets or Rabbits as Meat." Jobless auto workers hire themselves out as living statues who stand around in costume at a "Great Gatsby" charity benefit. Some local industries even improve: There's a need for a new jail, for example. And the local socialites hold a charity ball in the jail the night before it opens for business. They have a lot of fun wearing riot helmets and banging each other over the head with police batons.

"Roger & Me" does have a message to deliver-- a message about Corporate Newspeak and the ways in which profits really are more important to big American corporations than the lives of their workers. The movie is a counterattack against the amoral pragmatism of modern management theory, against the sickness of the "In Search of Excellence" mentality.

Moore has struck a nerve with this movie. There are many Americans, I think, who have not lost the ability to think and speak in plain English-- to say what they mean. These people were driven mad by the 1980s, in which a new kind of bureaucratese was spawned by Ronald Reagan and his soulmates-- a new manner of speech by which it became possible to "address the problem" while saying nothing and yet somehow conveying optimism.

Roger Smith and General Motors are good at that kind of talk. "Roger & Me" undercuts it with blunt contradictions. In the movie's single most haunting image, Smith addresses a GM Christmas television hookup, reading from "A Christmas Carol" while Moore shows deputies evicting a jobless GM worker and throwing his Christmas tree in the gutter. A spokesman for GM has attacked this scene as "manipulative." It certainly is. But Smith's treacly Christmas ceremony is manipulative, too, and so is the whole corporate doublespeak that justifies his bottom-line heartlessness. The genius of "Roger & Me" is that it understands the image-manipulating machinery of corporate public relations and fights back with the same cynicism and cleverness. The wonder is that the movie is both so angry, and so funny.

We knew revenge was sweet. What the movie demonstrates is that it is also hilarious-- for the avenged.

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