A duo that finds comedy gold in corporate greed
By Jan Stuart
Friday, Oct. 23, 2009
Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno are anti-globalization avengers who combine the unprepossessing aspect of Clark Kent with the trickster daring of Allen Funt. Armed with hidden micro cameras and Goodwill knockoffs of business attire, they sabotage high-profile conferences through absurd hoaxes, calculated to lampoon corporate greed and moral bankruptcy.
The brainy flimflammers took on the World Trade Organization in their debut 2003 documentary, "The Yes Men," in which they impersonated WTO spokesmen at a gathering of lawyers in Salzburg, Austria, after a Web site they contrived to parody the organization was taken to be the real McCoy. Under another trumped-up alias, Bichlbaum scammed attendees at a Finnish textile conference, where he lamented the demise of slavery and impressed the audience as he unveiled an inflatable, phallus-shaped surveillance device for the secret video monitoring of employees.
The pair's fiendishly amusing new opus is driven by the pie-in-the-sky speculation: What if corporations put the profit motive aside for a minute or two and did the right thing by the little people who often get sideswiped in the race to please stockholders?
The most gasp-provoking stunt in "The Yes Men Fix the World" revisits the Bhopal catastrophe of 1984, when Union Carbide neglected to make reparations to the victims of a chemical-plant leak in India that killed thousands. Following their WTO model, the Yes Men create a counterfeit Web site of Dow Chemical (the new owner of Union Carbide), spurring the interest of unsuspecting reporters for the British Broadcasting Corp. Posing as a Dow representative, Bichlbaum agrees to a BBC interview, during which he apologizes to the people of Bhopal and declares that his company has decided to compensate survivors to the tune of $12 billion. The televised announcement sinks Dow stock 3 1/2 percent within 23 minutes, reinforcing the Yes Men's overarching assertion that no good deed goes unpunished by the free-market system.
Amazingly, the pranksters never face lawsuits by the duped muckety-mucks, who would appear eager not to fan the flames of negative publicity. At worst, they get tossed out of a petroleum conference where, under the guise of Exxon execs, they pass around newfangled biofuel candles that they claim have been fashioned from the recycled human remains of climate-change victims.
For all the pair's idealism, they commit the occasional sin of self-aggrandizement: Confronted by repeated media accusations that they have cruelly raised the hopes of crisis victims with phony promises, they go to considerable lengths to demonstrate that they are regarded as renegade heroes by the survivors of Bhopal (and, in another segment, the public-housing populace of New Orleans displaced after Hurricane Katrina).
For those who enjoy the shift-in-your-seat kick of seeing emperors caught with their knickers down, however, the squirm factor achieved by the Yes Men out-Borats Sacha Baron Cohen at his most confrontational.
Jan Stuart is a freelance reviewer.