The identities and purpose of the Yes Men are quite the enigma. If you ask them, the two public hoaxers and provocateurs with the aliases of Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno will tell you they’re physical manifestations of the conscience the corporate world should have. Ask anyone else and you’re just as likely to hear they’re nothing more than barbaric stuntmen who leave trails of social destruction in their wake, not unlike the very corporations they’re targeting.
“The Yes Men Fix the World”
Tonight at the Michigan
Bichlbaum and Bonanno specialize in impersonating representatives of powerful companies and making fools out of themselves in public, whether that involves giving erroneous statements to the press or presenting insane ideas at shareholder’s meetings. They present their stunts and then gauge the reactions to them from the corporations, the general public and the specific subset of the public the corporations have already damaged through their own real, non-impersonated actions.
The Yes Men’s latest movie, “The Yes Men Fix the World,” plays like a greatest hits collection of their shenanigans, and acts as a sequel to 2003’s “The Yes Men.” In the six years since that first film, the pranksters have grown more ambitious, so they’re now able to blanket their guerilla satire under the cover of “fixing the world.” Indeed, with all the exposure they’re giving themselves in these movies, not to mention their appearances on countless news channels, the big unanswered question is why they haven’t been recognized yet.
The movie is technically a documentary, inasmuch as it’s mostly composed of real footage of the Yes Men performing their schemes. However, Bichlbaum and Bonanno, who co-direct with Kurt Engfehr (editor of “Fahrenheit 9/11”), mash truth with fiction in a manner that alternates between admirable and obnoxious. Because their entire goal is to use lies to expose the truth, in some ways they’re justified in only selecting footage that pertains to their own narrative — hence the doctored chronology of events they rely on. But the enveloping staged scenes, in which they retreat to their “secret underground lair” and go swimming in their business suits, are overly twee and patronizing.
Yet it’s when the Yes Men are in their element, going to any lengths to pull a ruse on people, even for only a few minutes, that the film and the reasons for making it really shine. Bichlbaum goes on the BBC on the 20th anniversary of a Union Carbide-caused chemical spill in Bhopal, India to announce that Dow Chemical accepts full responsibility for the incident, forcing Dow to issue a statement saying they have no intentions of donating anything to rebuild the city. He also poses as an ExxonMobil spokesperson at an oil conference to announce the production of candles made out of human flesh.
And, in the film’s most blisteringly hilarious segment, the pair debut the “Halliburton SurvivaBall” to a roomful of fascinated investors. The ball, a giant, inflatable insect-like pod, appears to be straight out of a Charlie Chaplin movie. But amazingly, the audience buys into the idea and asks questions about the phony device’s further applications.
Even in noteworthy segments like this, it’s hard to guess what exactly the Yes Men are satirizing. The willingness of rich people to buy ridiculous things to ensure their own safety? Well, OK … but making that point doesn’t seem worth all of their effort. And that’s ultimately what’s so hard to stomach about the Yes Men: Even when they succeed, it’s difficult to tell what they’ve accomplished. Some would even argue they’ve harmed the world more than fixing it, when the adverse snowball effects of the targeted companies’ plummeting stock prices are taken into account.
So the Yes Men’s stunts are certainly making the world take notice. Maybe once they find a way to channel all of their audacity and creativity into a constructive rather than destructive project, some fixing could actually begin.