In spite of its title, What Would Jesus Buy? isn't about determining the proper Christian attitude toward rampant consumerism, nor is it about taking the full measure of American shopping habits and their global impact. And though the movie revolves around anti-corporate performance artist "Reverend Billy" and his Church Of Stop Shopping, it says almost nothing about the hardships and compromises of an activist's life, or about whether it's reasonable to expect to change people's minds about consumption by walking into a Starbucks with a megaphone and acting like an asshole. Instead, director Rob Van Alkemade spends the bulk of WWJB's 90 minutes following Billy around the country from one guerilla-theater action to another—from the Times Square Disney Store to The Mall Of America—while inserting the occasional testimonial from a suburban family in deep credit-card debt, or a tsk-tsk-ing academic.
What Would Jesus Buy? is one of those all-too-common issue-docs that's so clear about its point that it's practically pointless. Its message is hard to dispute: Americans buy too much useless crap, and we apply our time and resources to bargain-hunting rather than community-building. But aside from a few fleeting facts and figures and the occasional pointed image of cheap gewgaws, Van Alkemade doesn't back his point with hard logic or artful visuals. WWJB is all about emotional appeals and laugh lines. During the film's inevitable takedown of Wal-Mart, one of the store's workers boasts about her employee benefit package, then freezes up when trying to describe it further. Does she actually receive just compensation? Who knows? Van Alkemade quickly cuts away from her stammering, as though making the audience laugh at one woman's stage fright has proved something.
Of course, ultimately What Would Jesus Buy? isn't about Van Alkemade's point of view, but about Reverend Billy's, and frankly, The Church Of Stop Shopping's act ain't much. It's neither conceptually bold nor slyly satirical when Billy dresses up as a Southern evangelical and sings made-up hymns about "the shopacalypse" for whatever TV morning show will book him, and his public protests usually call more attention to himself than his cause. Since Van Alkemade has no apparent interest in exploring the irony of a fictional character sermonizing about Americans' "inability to distinguish between real life and simulated life," all we can do is take it at face value when Reverend Billy preaches to a movie audience of Well, not the converted, exactly. Call them the smugly complacent.