Of course Michael Moore exaggerates. Of course he engages in cheerful, unabashed cherry-picking. Of course he sees black and white where most of us see shades of gray.
That doesn't necessarily mean he's wrong.
It just means he's being Michael Moore — and in his latest documentary, "Where to Invade Next," it's a more impishly entertaining Moore than usual, using comedy and even a bit of fantasy to prove his point. Which is, basically, that Europe has some ideas on how to run a society that Americans should plunder and pillage — er, adopt! — forthwith. But lest that seem an overly harsh indictment of the United States, Moore also seeks to remind us that many of these admirable ideas originated in America in the first place.
A jocular tone is set from the start, when Moore is "summoned" to the Pentagon. In this fantasy, U.S. military leaders beg him for help. "Michael, we don't know what the (expletive) we're doing," they say. "We've lost all the wars since World War II."
Can Moore help? Why yes, Moore replies. Yes he can.
Here's the plan: Moore himself will "invade" other countries to bring home what's useful. The first "target" is Italy. "Have you ever noticed that Italians all look like they've just had sex?" Moore begins. In his opening camera shot, they sure do.
He zooms in on a working-class Italian couple that seems to truly have it all: good jobs, plenty of leisure time, and the money to enjoy it, thanks to seven weeks of paid vacation, an extra month's pay each year, and oh, two-hour lunch breaks. Maternity leave, you ask? Five months paid. To twist the knife, Moore reminds us there are only two countries in the world that don't have mandated maternity leave: Papua New Guinea, and, yes, the USA.
Next stop: France. "As usual, the French offered little resistance," Moore quips. But soon you won't be laughing at France's expense — not when you see how well they feed their schoolchildren. An average district in Normandy serves four-course lunches with scallops to start, followed by lamb on skewers and a cheese course — camembert is just one option — before dessert. Moore brings a can of Coke. Nah, the kids say.
On to Finland, where a forward-looking education system sees excessive homework as a hindrance to learning, and even eschews multiple-choice questions. Getting the picture? In Slovenia, which looks here like a fairytale kingdom, university tuition is free —even for Americans, some of whom come over to avoid the burden of student debt back home. Eager to question the country's leadership, Moore doesn't need to barge in unannounced: the president of Slovenia welcomes him into his office.
In Germany, Moore marvels at worker benefits, like three weeks at a spa to combat stress. In Portugal, the country's drug czar patiently explains that it's not illegal to carry or use drugs; they've found this approach reduces drug-related crimes. In Iceland, the strong leadership of women — in government and business — is extolled. In Norway, Moore visits a prison where guards don't carry weapons, and inmates live in well-furnished apartments. Shifting tone, Moore conducts a heartbreaking interview with the father of a boy killed in Norway's horrendous 2011 mass shooting. The father tells Moore he wouldn't change Norway's criminal justice system (maximum sentence 21 years) even to see his son's murderer punished more severely.
Near the end, Moore detours to Tunisia, where he finds a young radio journalist wondering eloquently why Americans know so little about others.
"Why aren't you curious about US?" she asks. "We deserve your attention."
It's the heart of Moore's argument, actually: that wherever we stand on the issues, we could stand to learn from others. And it's pretty hard to argue with.
"Where to Invade Next," a Tom Quinn, Jason Janego and Tim League release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America "for language, some violent images, drug use and brief graphic nudity." Running time: 110 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA definition of R: Restricted. Under 17 requires parent or adult guardian.