Harry Shearer’s new documentary The Big Uneasy does for the botched New Orleans recovery what countless earnest independent documentaries have done for our similarly disastrous misadventures in Iraq: It provides a rigorous, point-by-point exploration of systematic failure. Shearer's film is charactrized by a paradoxical sense of quiet rage. The experts Shearer talks to about what went wrong with the recovery following Katrina are mad as hell and willing to sit down and talk civilly about it. The Big Uneasy is so sleepy and understated that when John Goodman shows up to yell his way through an angrily sarcastic segment called “Ask A New Orleanian,” it’s incredibly jarring.
The Big Uneasy takes a methodical look at the devastation left in Hurricane Katrina’s wake and how mismanagement amplified the tragedy. It’d be difficult to imagine a more vibrant, soulful, or photogenic city than New Orleans, and while Shearer’s affection for his part-time home is palpable, the film’s dry, academic treatment of its subject does the city a profound disservice. The city may be bursting with life, but Shearer’s on-camera segments are soggy white bread.
The flagrant mishandling of the Katrina recovery effort burdens Shearer with an enormous amount of information to unpack. He devotes so much time to explaining the situation that he barely affords the audience any time or space for outrage. If anything, The Big Uneasy is over-edifying. It’s more an op-ed piece than a muckraking exposé, more workmanlike journalism than documentary gold. Shearer’s intentions are never less than admirable, but they’ve led him to make a film that feels way too much like homework, one where the professor won’t even break out his Mr. Burns impersonation, even though he does, like, the best one ever.