Thus Spake Franken

Washington City Paper | September 29, 2006
The erstwhile Stuart Smalley now considers himself smart enough to fight back. Al Franken: God Spoke follows the titular comedian-turned-politico from 2003, when his controversial anti-conservative book, Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right, was published, to 2005, when he announced that in 2008 he may just run against Republican Norm Coleman for Minnesota’s senate seat.

Executive-produced by Don’t Look Back and The War Room director D.A. Pennebaker, God Spoke isn’t nearly as provoking as Jesus Camp. The documentary simply revisits recent history and, more wearying, has Franken and his cronies regurgitate the same arguments against the current administration that forehead-slapping liberals have been nearly asphyxiating over since the war began. For the blues, the movie will be depressing because its characters are angry but have thus proved impotent; for the reds, it’ll just boost their belief in the Bush mandate.

Excepting the heated exchange between Franken and Bill O’Reilly regarding O’Reilly’s inclusion in Lying Liars—“Shut up! You’ve had your 35 minutes....Shut up!” the Fox anchor bellows during a BookExpo panel—directors Nick Doob and Chris Hegedus weirdly portray Democrats and Republicans as good-natured opponents who joke around when they’re not in debate. Franken, who was sued by Fox News for using its allegedly trademarked catchphrase in his book’s title and is still referred to by O’Reilly as a “vile human being,” is seen being serious only a few times. There’s complete silence as he talks to the potential backers of Air America, on which he hosts The O’Franken Factor, about how vital it was to create a dedicated platform that would allow left-wingers to build a voice to rival such conservative mouthpieces as Rush Limbaugh. He screams at Michael Medved when the talk-show host pretty much backs up Franken’s message by admitting that an anti–John Kerry speech skewered some facts—but that it’s OK because “it’s all politics, Al.” And, of course, there’s Franken’s glum, how-could-this-happen expression when Kerry concedes.

But in person, Franken mostly approaches his opponents with the kind of just-joshing teasing more suitable for competitive best buds, even when he’s lecturing on his party’s behalf. Admittedly, a few laughs help statistics go down while explaining to a group of college students how a Brit Hume report is blatantly false. But a penis joke lobbed at an older, paying audience might not be the way to be taken seriously as a self-proclaimed fighter in “the battle for America itself.” The light tone is matched by a flitting narrative that jumps from Franken in his already politically minded Saturday Night Live days, to his appearance at a heavily Republican Newsweek party, to his hanging out at home, which serves to counter everything by suggesting he’s a real guy trying to make a difference. Ultimately, God Spoke—the title comes from an opening skit in which the Almighty tells Franken to write a book that points out that the media’s alleged liberal bias is “total bullshit”—feels like a clip show of Weekend Updates, only with more consistent humor. And amid all the funny, the more interesting story behind Franken’s compulsion to morph from comic to political contender is completely forgotten.

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