With fewer than 20 shopping days to go until Christmas and fewer than 385 shopping days to go until the one after that, this may be the perfect time to see What Would Jesus Buy?, Rob VanAlkemade's infotaining documentary about our evil consumerist ways and the man sent, perhaps by God, to return us to the straight and narrow. Reverend Billy, a.k.a. Bill Talen, isn't really a reverend, but he plays one on TV or anywhere else he might attract a congregation ready to hear the good news about dropping shopping. And I'll say this for him, he walks the walk and talks the talk, with his bleached-blond pompadour and his singsong delivery. Truth be told, he looks a little bit like Reverend Billy Graham, but the shtick is Jimmy Swaggart by way of velvet-painting Elvis. The guy could charm the "1"s off a dollar bill.
And that's pretty much what he hopes to do with his "Shopocalypse" crusade, a cross-country tour that has the reverend, along with his Church of Stop Shopping Choir, preaching the gospel of restraint at such temples of worship as the Mall of America, Wal-Mart's corporate headquarters in Arkansas and, last but certainly not least, Disneyland. And if the message falls largely on deaf ears or the ears of the already converted, it's not for lack of trying. Like Borat, Reverend Billy can be fearless to the point of foolhardiness. There's some delightful hit-and-run footage where the group knocks on the doors of McMansions and regales the residents with slightly altered Christmas carols. Nobody expects to be punked so close to oh holy night.
A performance artist/social activist, Talen has been at this for a number of years, and he's gotten so good at fire-and-brimstone sermonizing that he may think he's an ordained minister by now. But the documentary doesn't probe very deeply into exactly what he's up to, allowing him to stay in character most of the time. And it brings in the talking-head experts to help him make his case. Perhaps the most interesting part of the movie, though, is the "average" American's take on the whole X-mas phenomenon. VanAlkemade includes plenty of man-and-woman-on-the-street interviews, along with home visits, and the determination to shop until they drop seems stronger than ever. Of course, why wouldn't it? On the day after 9/11, our own president urged everybody to go shopping, lest the terrorists win.
He'll burn in hell for that, if Reverend Billy has anything to do about it.
What Would Jesus Buy?