North Of The Border Case File #135: Canadian Bacon
More My Year Of Flops
Just as Ned Flanders likes Woody Allen movies except for “that nervous fella that’s always in them,” I like Michael Moore movies and kind of hate Michael Moore himself. I agree overwhelmingly with Moore’s politics, consider him a vital and important figure in the cultural landscape, and dig Roger & Me, TV Nation, Bowling For Columbine,and Fahrenheit 9/11.
Yet simply hearing Moore’s voice while flipping through channels—whether in smug, smirky “Ain’t I a stinker?” smartass mode or trembling with fake sincerity about his deep concern for the common folk he uses as props to be tossed aside the moment the cameras stops rolling—is enough to send me into an apoplectic rage. That’s why I happily skipped Sicko and Slacker Uprising.
There’s so very much I despise about Moore’s public persona, from his habitual abuse of cheap irony to the loathsome scene in Bowling For Columbine where he glibly scores points off a clearly senile, dementia-addled Charlton Heston to the way he zealously clung to an “I’m a mere working-class schmoe from Flint, just like you” posture long after his fame and riches made such proletarian posturing unfeasible, if not downright laughable.
This invites the question “What ultimately determines a person’s class?” Is it the roots of your raising, or your current socioeconomic status? Is the real Moore the blue-collar guy from Flint, or the chichi Manhattanite currently eating truffles at the Ritz with various Rockefellers, Gettys, and the moldering yet still delightful corpse of George Plimpton? Is it where you’re from, or where you’re at?
Moore is a bully and a blowhard who doesn’t play fair, yet I appreciate the way he’s reclaimed populism from right-wing fearmongers and Reagan Republicans, and almost single-handedly made political documentaries into a viable commercial prospect. I remember feeling a surge of pride in my countrymen when Fahrenheit 9/11, an incendiary non-fiction political manifesto, was the number-one movie in the country the week it came out. (The next weekend, White Chicks was the number-one movie in the country, and that pride in the taste of American moviegoers was replaced by shame.)
In that respect, Canadian Bacon is the perfect Michael Moore movie for me. It’s got all of Moore’s wit, political insight, and talent, and apart from a 20-second Hitchcock-like cameo as Gun-toting Yahoo #2, none of that fat asshole in the baseball cap I’ve come to despise with every fiber of my being.
With Canadian Bacon, Moore’s stated objective was to Trojan Horse sly political and social commentary into a goofy comedy for John Candy fans. It did not work. The film grossed less than $200,000 in its theatrical run, and received largely dismissive reviews. A humbled Moore retreated back into the documentary world, seemingly for good.
With Canadian Bacon,Moore simultaneously aimed high and low. He set out to make a Dr. Strangelove for the ’90s and a John Candy laffer for beer-drinking slobs. Commercially, these wildly divergent goals might have cancelled each other out: Bacon was perceived as too lowbrow for the highbrows, and too highbrow for the lowbrows. In trying to appeal to everyone, Moore ended up appealing to just about no one.
In a premise that can charitably be called Strangeloveian and not so charitably called a shameless Dr. Strangelove knock-off, Canadian Bacon casts Alan Alda as a quintessential Alan Alda type, a milquetoast president who awkwardly invokes “Blowing In The Wind” in speeches, and in a bit of W.-like reverse profundity, stammers about how it’s “time to turn off the war machine and turn on our children.”
Alda is so ineffectual that when he’s almost killed while delivering a speech at a weapons plant, his advisors (Rip Torn and a sniveling, Machiavellian weasel played by a smartly typecast Kevin Pollak) inform him, “The voters felt you being alive or dead had no real bearing on their lives.”
“With all due respect, sir, enjoy your single term,” Torn grimly counsels in the George C. Scott role, as a crusty blood-and-guts general deeply nostalgic for the Cold War. The fall of the Soviet Union has left our nation fatally without an enemy, so Alda and his top aides go shopping for an antagonist. But all their old arch-nemeses are either dead (the Ayatollah Khomeini), making license plates in Florida (Manuel Noriega) or “reformed—and looking good!” (Jane Fonda)
First Alda tries to get Russia to once again play the sneering heel to our heroic babyface. During a sit-down over fried chicken, Alda asks an indignant Russian premier, with slightly strained casualness, if they can’t “mix it up the way we used to in the good old days.” Russia isn’t having it, even after the increasingly desperate Torn and Pollak try to provoke the Russian premier by physically assaulting him as he leaves to board the plane.
Finally, the perfect enemy presents itself in our unassuming neighbors to the north. Canadian Bacon gets a lot of comic mileage out of the incongruity of demonizing a people as meek as Canadians, like the hyperbolic TV report warning, “Like maple syrup, Canada’s evil oozes over the United States.” Suddenly everything about Canadian culture is seen as suspect: the disturbing number of Canadian celebrities living among us, the nonstop border crossings, and perhaps most terrifying, Canada’s “threatening lead in Zamboni technology.” U.S fearmongers work overtime to create a culture-wide panic over the prospect of a Canadians putting “mayonnaise on everything.” And the horrifying image of our children (oh, won’t someone think of the children?) “pledging allegiance to the maple leaf.”
John Candy and Rhea Perlman play two ordinary Americans caught up in this wave of xenophobia and hot-blooded nationalism, a Niagara Falls sheriff and his gun-crazed deputy/wife. Not content to merely curse the infernal Canucks from afar, they decide to slip over the border and defile Canada with litter.
When Perlman is captured behind frienemy lines, a Cold War designed to pump up an unpopular president’s approval ratings threatens to turn white-hot, especially once a sinister weapon known as the “Hacker Hellstorm” enters the equation.
Bacon riffs fruitfully on the innate politeness of Canadians. Steven Wright is hilarious as a jail-keeper so incorrigibly nice that he writes thank-you notes to his prisoners: “Thank you for sleeping so quietly. I love you, even though you’re a criminal,” and “Thank you for keeping your cell clean.” Dan Aykroyd has an amusing cameo as a Canadian cop who pulls over Candy’s truck—which is covered in crude anti-Canadian graffiti—and gives Candy a ticket for not translating the insults into French for the benefit of French-Canadians.
After generating solid laughs during its first hour, Canadian Bacon falls apart in its third act. Moore apparently couldn’t think of a way to end the film, so he simply borrowed Dr. Strangelove’s ending. G.D. Spradlin’s crusty, crazy, mean-spirited arms mogul decides to extort $1 trillion from the U.S government by threatening/promising nuclear armageddon at the hands of his Hacker Hellstorm, and Perlman goes rogue, running amok in one of Canada’s most beloved landmarks before accidentally disabling the Hacker Hellstorm program with a burst of machine-gun fire. In the end, unhinged American gun-lust ends up saving the world.
Canadian Bacon puts a cherry on the sundae of its third-act crappiness with lame closing captions revealing its character’s fates, Animal House-style, but it still manages to score some big laughs, like when Torn gripes that he never liked the Hacker Hellstorm because it “took all the fun out of armageddon.” Nobody does avuncular evil quite like Rip Torn, and Bacon beautifully exploits his unique combination of jolly and sinister. Alda is perfectly cast as well, as is Spradlin as a miserable old bastard willing to destroy the world to make a point, and Brad Sullivan in a crucial supporting role as a government schemer who has been furtively plotting against Canada for decades. At one point, he derides his colleagues as “gutless desk mammals. Ever since I told them we’d be back from the Bay Of Pigs before 10, they’ve treated me like dirt.”
Canadian Bacon offers larfs aplenty, plus a sustained critique of nationalism run amok, gun and missile fetishism, and our national tendency to demonize other countries and seek out external scapegoats as a smokescreen to keep us from examining our own internal shortcomings.
I recently visited Canada for the first time to be part of a panel show about television with Erik Estrada and Jimmie Walker. (I am so not making that up.) I found the country to be a whole lot more Canadian than I had expected. Like the knuckle-dragging ugly Americans in Canadian Bacon,I stupidly thought of it as little more than our 51st state, so I was shocked to learn that Canada has its government and culture and history and everything, just like a real country. How adorable!
One of my fellow panelists was a stand-up comic and a writer for what he described as the “Canadian Daily Show.” “You probably wouldn’t like it, since it deals almost exclusively with Canadian stuff that’d fly over the head of American audiences.” My initial thought was, “Does the world really need a Canadian Daily Show? Can’t they just digitally stick a can of Molson Export in Jon Stewart’s hand and superimpose images of elk frolicking in the background?”
But as I learned in my misadventures up north, Erik Estrada never stops talking about himself, and Canada is very, very, very different from the United States. The official state religion is Tragically Hip, the accents are thick enough to cut with a butcher’s knife, and everyone in the Canadian entertainment industry seems to know exactly what every other Canadian in the business is up to. If a 19-year-old from Ottawa gets a bit part on Baywatch,everyone else in Canada seems to know about it instantly. It’s as if they have some sort of Borg-like hive mind.
En route to the set one day, I asked a production assistant with a McKenzie brothers accent and many sad anecdotes about Corey Haim whether he liked Toronto. “Not really. The people here aren’t particularly nice.” I found that surprising. “Really? Cause people seem really polite here.” After pondering for a moment, he conceded, “Yeah, people here are polite on the surface, but they don’t really mean it.” Bear that in mind the next time you’re being wowed by the apparent decency and civility of the Canadian people. Intimidated and overwhelmed by this strange tribe and their curious customs, I ended up bonding with my fellow countrymen—good, decent, hardworking folks like the guy who played Ponch on CHiPs.
Late into taping one night, the way-too-smooth host of the show said that the program we were taping “puts the kitsch in your television pitch.” “What does ‘kitsch’ mean?” Estrada asked, while I struggled not to have an irony-induced heart attack. I was very much tempted to reply, “Hey, you know what you see every morning when you look in the mirror? That’s pretty much it.”
I came to appreciate Canadian Bacon even more after visiting Canada. It really is more than just America’s hat. In spite of Canadian Bacon’s critical and commercial failure, big chunks of its premise reappeared in much more successful satires like South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (a U.S./Canada war) and Wag The Dog (an unpopular president faking a war to boost his approval ratings). It’s tempting to argue that Moore’s comedy was just ahead of its time, though its third-act woes probably played a much bigger role in its failure. A film with a great ending but an inauspicious beginning almost always leaves audiences happier than a film that starts strong but limps to a finish.
Canadian Bacon seems to have marked both the beginning and the end of the fiction phase of Moore’s career, but I’d like to see him make another non-documentary so I can enjoy his subversive sensibility without having to look at that jerk who makes me so angry, I just want to punch him right in his fat fucking face.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success