British TV presenter Louis Theroux and a BBC crew set out to be the latest to “expose” the religion-as-pyramid-scheme Scientology with “My Scientology Movie.”
Not that everybody doesn’t know that. As “shocking” subjects for documentaries go, the buy-your-way-into-a-sci-fi-writer’s idea of “immortality” cult is strictly low-hanging fruit.
And no, I’m not talking about its most famous celebrity adherents.
Theroux, — cousin of actor and Jennifer Astin hubby Justin, son of “Mosquito Coast” writer Paul — latches onto a couple of disaffected ex-members of the IAS (International Association of Scientologists), “apostates” who know where the bodies are buried.
He shows up with a camera crew at the group’s infamous “Gold Base,” a celebrity paradise/non-celebrity dungeon in Riverside, California. Like the thin-skinned current occupant of the White House, the Church always takes the bait — leading to familiar confrontations, threats, showing up with a camera demanding that he leave. Seen that before, too.
But what’s novel here is that Theroux and director John Dower know they’ll never get Tom Cruise, John Travolta (not mentioned) or the cult’s diminutive, intimidating, Naval uniformed leader, David Miscavige, to sit for interviews. So they hold casting sessions for many of these “characters. They’ll film “My Scientology Movie” in an effort to recreate some of the more infamous allegations of abuse and infantile bullying that the church and its leaders are accused of.
And then there are the secrets/tactics/dogma that longtime Scientology Quartermaster General Marty Rathbun explains, and through the actors they “cast,” directs into recreating. The staring contests (Cruise mastered his glower here), intimidation and name-calling designed to get someone “clear” can be understood as genuine “science of self-help” benefits. At least to actors, and maybe Korean border guards.
Of course, these E-Meter interrogations are also used as blackmail, keeping adherents in the cult and pushing them to greater and greater “investments” in buying your way up the hierarchy towards Sci-Tol Nirvana. That, too, is overlooked here.
Theroux has a deadpan and unflappable style that serves him well in his many confrontations with “squirrel busting” Scientology officials, who get in his face and in that of other “SPs” (Suppressive Persons) with cameras, insults, demands and threats.
The many “Do you know why this guy is filming us?” debates — the BBC filming Scientologists filming the BBC — have a comical quality. That, in the end, is the larger point here. Theroux is playing this mostly for laughs. When an actress interrupts an early poolside hotel room chat, we wonder how much of what we’re really seeing is “real,” and how much is just a laugh?
More chilling is how Theroux gets a rise out of Rathbun, once a highly-placed intimidator, a two-fisted “fixer” now undergoing endless IAS harassment, a short-tempered penitent who lets us see the sorts of bullies the church creates. Then there are the ever-shrinking numbers that the Church is drawing. All this money, all this infrastructure and real-estate, and there are maybe 20,000 paying/abused/over-working suckers still listening to the little man in the admiral’s suit sell them on the idea that they’re saving the world.
There are amusing points to be scored with this organization finding a home in close proximity to the gullible, narcissistic dreamers of show business, and the parallels with the “Health and Wealth” pyramid scheme Herbalife as depicted in the new documentary “Betting on Zero” are undeniable.
Theroux’s film misses that. So it’s hardly the last word on this scam and its hilarious embrace of the “Duck Soup” uniforms and the addled imagination and crackpot ideas of L. Ron Hubbard.
But that’s the point. If the F.B.I. can’t break in and “free” cultists being brainwashed and having their bank accounts emptied, if the decades of print and TV news warnings about Scientology haven’t dried up the supply of suckers, maybe this approach can.
Mock them to death.
MPAA Rating: unrated, with violence, threats, profanity
Cast: Louis Theroux, Marty Rathbun, Andrew Perez, Rob Alter
Credits: Directed by John Dower, written by John Dower and Louis Theroux. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:39