Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum in “The Yes Men Are Revolting,” which they co-directed with Laura Nix. | THE ORCHARD
Among other things, Laura Nix and the Yes Men’s documentary “The Yes Men Are Revolting” is an unusual bromance. Not only is it free of the homophobia that mars so much contemporary American comedy, but one of the Yes Men, an activist duo, comes out. It says something about how unusual “The Yes Men Are Revolting” feels that it comes closer to a Hollywood comedy like “Neighbors” than a high-minded political documentary like Kirby Dick’s “The Hunting Ground.”
The Yes Men — who use the pseudonyms Mike Bonanno and Andy Bichlbaum, though their real names are revealed in the film — talk about how each felt like they had found their perfect partner in mischief when they met. They’re best known for a long series of stunts in which they impersonated corporate bigwigs in settings like a press conference where, for example, the “CEO” of an oil company would announce they were switching to solar and wind energy.
“The Yes Men Are Revolting” depicts Mike and Andy as middle-aged men; their younger incarnations appear in footage from the first two documentaries chronicling their activities. Time has taken its toll on them and driven them in different directions. In fact, Mike’s devotion to family life pulls him outside activism entirely. (Halfway through the film, he moves to Dundee, Scotland.) They devote most of their energy to climate change but feel powerless to stop it. Still, they keep going, traveling to Uganda to meet with an activist who wants First World countries to pay for the adaptations impoverished Africans will have to make. (The subject of Uganda’s anti-gay legislation comes up here as well.) The two men stage several pranks throughout the film, with varying degrees of success.
Aging Yes Men struggle to keep their climate control activism buoyant
“The Yes Men Are Revolting” shows the duo digging through their archive of props and costumes. A melancholy tone pervades much of the film, even as it strives to be upbeat and celebratory and to encourage spectators toward activism. Mike has settled down into marriage, but his Scottish wife apparently barely consented to appear in the film. We never hear her voice and rarely see her face. Early on, Andy says he’s found the man with whom he wants to spend the rest of his life. Then that boyfriend leaves him. He seems to be single — and palpably lonely — for the rest of the film. Mike fathers three children, almost secretly. While the two men come together for political projects, there’s a long stretch where their friendship seems to have frayed.
“The Yes Men Are Revolting” is the first of the three documentaries about the Yes Men that they are credited with (co-)directing. Here, directing seems to mean organizing footage from a wide variety of sources. The quality of video shifts wildly; some is contemporary and high-definition, while earlier footage is grainier. There are several animated sequences, which seem inserted in a gratuitous attempt at adding “visual style.” The animation illustrates the dire consequences of climate change, offering information almost everyone who would see a leftist documentary already knows.
If “The Yes Men Are Revolting” lifts its emotional framework from Hollywood (and real life, to be fair), it definitely draws its political conclusions from elsewhere. After a disappointing stunt in Amsterdam, the Yes Men feel alienated and defeated by their inability to make a dent against climate change. Then a series of revolts around the world — particularly Occupy Wall Street — reinvigorate them, making them feel like part of a community again. The finale of the film emphasizes the need to connect individual activism to a larger movement, but when “The Yes Men Are Revolting” goes on to depict Occupy’s under-publicized charity work for Hurricane Sandy’s devastated victims in Queens, it’s not the kind of revolutionary change the movement had promised.
The lack of an organized left in the US remains a big barrier for effectively challenging corporate abuse of the environment, condoned by both Democrats and Republicans. The Yes Men would probably agree with this, but going to their website, as the film’s end credits sequence urges, isn’t exactly taking to the barricades. “The Yes Men Are Revolting” is an entertaining ride through the past few years, but for all its exuberance, a deep gloom remains.
THE YES MEN ARE REVOLTING | Directed by Laura Nix and the Yes Men | The Orchard | Opens Jun. 12 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com