Friday, November 30, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Preaching against excess, but who will buy it?

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 2.5 stars

"What Would Jesus Buy?," a documentary directed by Rob VanAlkemade. 91 minutes. Not rated; suitable for all audiences. Varsity.

As most of us face the heaven or hell of retail religion just a week after another Black Friday, there's one thing we have to ask ourselves: Is it too late to prevent the Shopocalypse?

That's also the musical question posed by this amusing documentary as it tracks a cross-country bus tour led by the bleached-blond bouffanted New York performance artist Reverend Billy. As the self-ordained pastor of the Church of Stop Shopping, his charismatic Southern televangelist shtick carries both a comedic and moralistic message against the scourge of consumerism. At every stop on his crusade, the reverend shimmies, shakes and speaks in tongues against consumer excess, backed by the Not Buying It Band and the soulful sway of the red-robed believers in the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir.

Reverend Billy, aka Bill Talen, polished his evangelistic calling as a pulpit-wielding busker in Times Square in the late '90s in response to Disney's consumer-oriented takeover of the neighborhood. Adding a clerical collar to the white polyester tux he wore for his job as a caterer, his act grew into somewhat more than just a joke. As the Church of Stop Shopping turned into a full-blown performance piece, the nut of anti-globalized greed and binge buying grew as a genuine cause for Talen and the audiences his shows drew.

The film bears the imprimatur of producer Morgan Spurlock, of "Super Size Me" fame. Unfortunately, director Rob VanAlkemade doesn't have the same kind of inspired premise to sustain much more than a picaresque portrait of a farcical Don Quixote tilting at the windmills of Wal-Mart and the Mall of America.

A camera crew follows Reverend Billy and his acolytes as their buses travel from New York to California the month leading up to Christmas 2005. At shopping centers along the way, they put on impromptu anti-consumer "services" that invariably end with trespass bans from befuddled mall security forces. Of course, that's exactly what the jangly verité video cameras are there to exploit.

Intercut with Reverend Billy's hokey exhortations and the choir's parody gospel numbers are a few interviews with more serious activist types, free-trade mouthpieces and random shoppers who admit, yeah, gee, I probably do shop more than I should. The climax comes when Reverend Billy and the choir make a stealth appearance marching down Main Street USA at Disneyland on Christmas Day. Suffice it to say that Reverend Billy won't be preaching at your local Disney Store any time soon.

"What Would Jesus Buy?" is paved with good intentions, but its occasional earnest streaks are less likely to draw moviegoing consumers than the spectacle of a good time gospel show for worshippers seeking redemption from the almighty dollar.

Ted Fry:

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company


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