Andy Bechlbaum has the eyes of a prankster. Although in his 40s, he still has the wide stare and ear-to-ear grin of a kid who has pulled off something naughty. So it’s a wonder how he and Mike Bonanno, collectively known as the Yes Men, can keep it together to fool a string of people, getting them into business conventions, conferences and televised interviews. Once at their destination — usually a podium — one or both of them present thinly veiled Swiftian satire that leads to befuddlement, and they’re usually tossed out for — and this is the scary part — the request for business cards and further information.
In the speedy film “The Yes Men Fix the World,” we see five situationist pranks from these artists, who have made corporation criticism their raison d”tre since 2000. At a conference for bankers, they discuss a way of profiting from tragedy, and, posing as Halliburton representatives, they unveil an absurd SurvivaBall, an inflatable suit in which one can ride out the apocalypse. At an energy conference, they pass out candles made from a former employee for a world where the dead can be used for fuel. There’s no real flesh in the candle, of course, but the real human hair inside smells foul.
There’s even smarter corp-jamming within the film, and a brief few days where one prank directly affects DOW Chemical’s stock price. Bechlbaum finds his way on air with the BBC and, posing as a DOW rep, announces that the company would pay $12 billion in damages to the victims of the Bhopal chemical disaster in 1985. He also stands next to New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin and, posing as a spokesperson from HUD, promises folks in the Ninth Ward that their housing projects will be reopened instead of demolished.
Once caught, the Yes Men appear to get away with the hoaxes, and one can imagine that a prosecution would bring up a lot of unfavorable PR from the defense team. The media, however, don’t like being made fools of, or at least not by the Yes Men. The hoaxes are called “cruel,” explained as raising the hopes of the less fortunate. However, the film doesn’t find out if the same news organizations called Union Carbide “cruel” for the deaths of over 3,000 Indians. One suspects not.
If the pranks have goals, they seem to be this: Cause a brief news story that will thrust an injustice back in the news; change a heart or a head or two. In the former, the news cycle quickly swallows up a “quirky story” centered on the hoaxers and not the issue. In the latter, the old adage applies that nobody will change their mind when their paycheck is based on not doing so.
As self-promoting and ultimately unsatisfying as “The Yes Men Conquer the World,” it provides enough analysis in between the pranks to serve as a primer to the state of world, late capitalism era. Milton Friedman, guru of free marketeers everywhere, makes a nice villain, and his disciples run everything from Wall Street to the government (cue clips of Reagan and Clinton).
“The Yes Men Fix the World” doesn’t show what the title promises, of course, and that will anger or frustrate viewers in the right way. Is there profit in doing the right, moral thing? The film suggests that, at least for these last 50 years and in the foreseeable future, there is not.
‘THE YES MEN FIX THE WORLD’
Starring: Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno
Length: 87 minutes
Playing: 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Wednesday at UCSB’s Campbell Hall
Cost: $6 general, $5 UCSB students