What Would Jesus Buy?



Warrior Poets/Werner Film

Through the somewhat murky prism of a performance-art troupe's cross-country tour, director Rob VanAlkemade illuminates a number of worthy issues in his first documentary feature. Those issues, all of which have been explored in recent docus -- rampant consumer debt, destruction of natural resources, corporate globalization, addictive behavior, the effect of Wal-Mart on small-town America -- receive only glancing treatment on this road trip. "What Would Jesus Buy?" which proudly bears the imprimatur of producer Morgan Spurlock, likely will find itself preaching to the choir when it opens Friday in New York, making its Los Angeles bow Wednesday.

The Rev. Billy (aka Bill Talen), in white suit, ministerial collar and DayGlo yellow pompadour, leads the New York-based Church of Stop Shopping Choir with pseudo-Pentecostal fervor. They deliver an important social-activist message about commercialization and the need for conscious consumerism: "If we could change Christmas, we could change the whole year," Billy declares. Given how much the retail bottom line depends on yuletide purchases and the lengths to which desperate shoppers go to buy the electrogadget du jour, it's a philosophy worth listening to. Although we don't get much past the surface here, Billy clearly is a driven man -- and you've gotta love a guy who's been banned from all Starbucks and Disney properties.

When he's not following the group's charismatic crusade to prevent the "Shopocalypse" -- which culminates in an unscheduled Christmas Day performance at Disneyland and another of Billy's arrests -- VanAlkemade interviews various experts and turns his cameras on the shopping-obsessed. A tween girl dreams of living in the mall; a middle-class mother spends three quarters of the year paying for her kids' holiday presents and says she'd gladly go broke to give them the biggest, best, most up-to-the-minute merchandise.

It's no news flash that for many Americans the lead-up to Christmas involves revolving credit, not spiritual contemplation. As a microcosm of the always-on, always-spending culture, Christmas is as good as it gets. But despite effective moments, VanAlkemade's film is too diffuse. He gives us snippets of the group's spirited performances, but their effect on audiences remains unclear. (As does the matter of funding for the biodiesel-bus trek; according to production notes, "producers and philanthropists" financed the tour.)

Most viewers will be left to wonder, as does Billy's wife, show director Savitri Durkee, whether the message is connecting.