It's been seven years since Michael Moore's last film, "Capitalism: A Love Story." A director who once seemed a dominant figure in American documentary film, and certainly the dominant figure in its agit-prop chapter, now almost looks more like an elder statesman.
Almost. Michael Moore is many things, but statesmanlike has never been one of them.
In "Where to Invade Next," Moore tours multiple foreign countries that do things better — politically, economically, whatever — than we do here. So "emulate" would be a more accurate verb for the title, but Moore's premise is that the Joint Chiefs of Staff have called him in to act as "a one-man army" to reconnoiter future targets. At the end of each visit — which Moore winkingly refers to as "invasions" — he plants a US flag.
In Italy, Moore tours a couple of factory floors and hears about how much paid vacation time workers get. In France, he marvels at the quality of school lunches. Slovenia doesn't charge college tuition. Tunisia, the one non-Western European country, offers government-funded abortions and has an equal rights amendment. Iceland was the first country to elect a female president; and after the Great Recession actually sent bankers to prison. Portugal has decriminalized drugs. The Norwegian penal system emphasizes rehabilitation over punishment.
Moore, who presents himself as a classic innocent abroad, keeps things busy. There are lots of cutaways to infographics, local-news footage back in the States, Fox News talking heads, film clips. The funniest is from "Talladega Nights." The soundtrack during the Italian visit features Dean Martin singing "Volare." Mastering subtlety, you won't be surprised to hear, remains on Moore's to-do list.
He smuggles a can of Coca-Cola into the French school cafeteria and tries to get the kids to drink some. They look scared of him (smart kids). Visiting with the Slovenian president, Moore learns that the alphabet lacks the letter "w." Was that before or after George W. Bush, he wonders. In the film's most uncomfortable moment, Moore hectors the father of one of the 77 young Norwegians killed in the 2011 mass shooting. Doesn't the father wish his son had had a gun? Moore asks. Doesn't he want vengeance? (The killer received the maximum sentence, 21 years' imprisonment.) Clearly, Moore's playing devil's advocate. Just as clearly, he should be leaving the poor man alone.
"Where to Invade Next" runs just under two hours and feels longer. Moore doesn't keep things busy enough. Would the documentary have worked better as an HBO reality series? Things would flow better, feeling less cluttered and repetitive. Maybe that wouldn't make much difference. Simplistic righteousness and rage, which Moore is unrivaled at, are more effective than simplistic fawning. They're more entertaining, too.
WHERE TO INVADE NEXT
Written, directed by, and starring Michael Moore. Boston Common, Kendall Square, suburbs. 119 minutes. R (brief glimpses of nudity, conversational obscenity, disturbing news footage).
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.