Morgan Spurlock's latest quasi-documentary asks many questions, including the biggie that stands as the film's title: Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? Yes, spurred by the pending birth of his first child, Spurlock seeks to make the world safer for his offspring the only way he knows how -- to track down world's most notorious criminal.
"If I've learned anything from big-budget action films, it's that complicated world problems are best solved by one lonely guy," Spurlock says early in the film.
Come again? Does the lanky 37-year-old New Yorker actually think he can single-handedly find a man who's successfully eluded the U.S. government, with all its military and technological might -- not to mention a $25 million reward -- since Sept. 11, 2001?
Spurlock has dabbled in ludicrous narrative conceits before, as his amusing first-person documentary Super Size Me -- in which he ate nothing but McDonald's for 30 days -- attests.
But Osama bin Laden is no Ronald McDonald.
It's not long before Spurlock's true intention for Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? is revealed: He yearns to understand the mindset of an Arab world that's rapidly turning against the United States, a place his newborn child will soon inherit.
It's an admirable goal, but how can Spurlock make his film palatable to an American movie audience that's shown zero interest in such investigations? Everything from star-studded dramatic features (Lions for Lambs, In the Valley of Elah, Stop-Loss) to illuminating documentaries (Taxi to the Dark Side, No End in Sight, Iraq in Fragments) has died on arrival at the box office.
As Frank Rich pointed out in a recent New York Times column, "Most Americans don't want to hear, see or feel anything about Iraq, whether they support the war or oppose it. They want to look away, period, and have been doing so for some time."
Spurlock tries to combat this malaise by sprucing up his first-person Middle East excursion with lame Pop songs and flashy sequences in which an animated Osama gets down to MC Hammer's "U Can't Touch This" (as in the U.S. government's failure to capture him) and a running motif that features video-game-style narrative breaks when our narrator/tour guide moves from one Middle Eastern country to the next. There's also a painful sequence in which animated versions of Spurlock and bin Laden do battle as Mortal Kombat characters.
The film works best when Spurlock ditches the slick visuals and sticks to the interviews he does with the everyday citizens of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Morocco, Afghanistan and Pakistan, many of whom essentially agree with an Egyptian scholar who tells us, "People have learned to expect a lot less from the U.S. than they used to." Decades of meddling in the Middle East -- from propping up dictators to giving billions in monetary aid and weapons to those we deem in our "allies" -- have led the Arab world's citizens to believe that America wants to dominate the world, "especially Islamic countries."
Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? could actually serve as a useful primer to an American populace that seems sorely ill-informed about our current standing in the world, much of which despises the Bush administration's foreign policy tactics but still admires the majority of American citizens. Spurlock is an affable, good-natured tour guide, a populist crusader of sorts whose shameless, self-important vanity only occasionally encroaches on the larger points he's trying make.
Over the course of this entertaining, sometimes illuminating, often flippant film, one is left with the overriding sense that the world is a terribly complex place, made even more complex by rapidly evolving globalization, and only through patience and true understanding will various clashing cultures learn to survive in peace.
Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden? might be lacking as a credible journalistic endeavor, but its heart is in the right place. Grade: B-
Opens April 18. Check out theaters and show times, see the film's trailer and find nearby bars and restaurants here.