Considering outward appearances, it may seem like the period between late November and late December is a lovely time of year, filled with family gatherings, endearingly tacky decorations, yule logs, latkes, turtle doves, dradles and an alarming, yet welcome abundance of gifts. But to the prickly, Scrooge McDucks of the world--and moreover, anyone opposed to holiday commercialism--the holiday season is a dystopian nightmare that doesn’t end until you wake up hungover on New Year’s Day. When we see the chilly parking lots surrounding malls filled with shoppers going into debt to buy wares made in Third World countries, the spirit of Christmas seems dead. Only it’s not just dead--its bloated corpse has been roasting in the sun in a remote desert for a few weeks with vultures pecking at it.
Such commercial exploitation begs for dissent, and while What Would Jesus Buy? puts forth a noble effort at drawing awareness to Christmas vapidity, the documentary fails miserably. In fact, this could be the messiest work of cinematic nonfiction ever made. From minor details such as the use of fonts that mimic Disney script, to major concerns such as the point of the story (which meanders so much it effectually creates confused little ox-bow lakes filled with incomplete thoughts), a total lack of vision backs this creation.
“As fall turns to winter across this nation, many millions will converge on centers of worship, large and small, to celebrate and give thanks to a familiar god,” goes the opening narration, over a montage of traffic, parking lots, shopping malls and Christmas decorations. This is followed by a tirade on credit cards, shots of newswomen saying absentminded things about shopping and a general message of loss and emptiness as a nation. The narrator cites unattributed statistics about finances: For the first time since the Great Depression, the household personal savings rate is below zero; Americans will spend half a trillion dollars on Christmas this year. Besides putting forth clichéd ideas likening consumerism to spirituality and malls to churches, the film does sort of get off on the right foot.
However, any well-founded gripe about consumerism is systematically obliterated by Rev. Billy, a mock minister decorated with an eccentric get-up, bottle-blond coif, put-on sing-song Southern accent and colorful rhetoric. Rev. Billy, or Bill Talen, has since 1999 been the leader of the Church of Stop Shopping, a political quasi-comedy group presented as an actual ministry in the film. The reverend is introduced giving a sermon inside a church, before a red-robed choir, which sings a cheesy song about not shopping. Somewhere within this song is a line about “put the Starbucks down,” which calls to question--is this group concerned about Christmas consumerism or corporate coffee? Meanwhile, Rev. Billy is annoying and unconvincing as he talks about shopping-addicted culture, and the group’s forthcoming “journey into utter absurdity,” which is appropriate.
What follows is a chronicle of the group’s tour across America in two biodiesel buses. This is where things get really ridiculous. It seems as though the trip, along with the shenanigans that ensue--twisted Christmas carols at the Mall of America, a prayer service at Wal-Mart headquarters in Bentonville, Ark.--are only partially chronicled. Narration never explains where they are headed or what the mission is. Instead they turn up in various locales, and it seems as though the cross-country trip, which ends with Rev. Billy being arrested on Christmas at Disneyland, is totally aimless. The spinning state postcards that pop up halfway through their travels, after they’ve already been through a few states, add insult to injury.
In the end, the downfall of WWJB? is its utter lack of focus. The film tries to address too many issues, never effectively addressing a single one. Whether it’s about consumerism, ruthless shoppers, the spirit of Christmas, corporate capitalism, the Church of Stop Shopping or dissent itself, the film isn’t dedicated to any one idea. For a more convincing message about commercialism and Christmas, anyone who would watch WWJB? in the first place might be better off watching 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas.