'Bin Laden' not worth finding

You might be hoping that Morgan ("Super Size Me") Spurlock's "Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?" slipped into theaters without fanfare because Spurlock did find bin Laden (or at least got close to him) and had to keep it all hush-hush. No such luck. This movie is a case of arthouse bait and switch. Its true subject is one decent Yank's desire to believe that Everyman and Everywoman &

Everywhere! &

is as warm and amiable as your average American Joe: him, Morgan Spurlock, the regular guy as fearless globetrotter.

Spurlock presents Spurlock in equal parts as an open-minded investigator and an unofficial ambassador of goodwill. It's too bad his distributors, the Weinsteins, weren't still associated with the Disney company, because this movie, in the tradition of Uncle Walt, tries to find the equivalent of Main Street all across the globe.

Spurlock doesn't flinch from torture and oppression, but this movie oscillates between singing "It's A Small World After All" and yelling "Watch out!" Spurlock roams across a Saudi Arabian beheading spot, Chop Chop Square, when it looks like a normal city space, as kids fool with a soccer ball seemingly oblivious to the drain used for spilled blood. Spurlock ruminates about the incongruity, but his affable presence muffles his sardonic critique.

Spurlock, a Michael Moore manque, apes the structure of Moore's "Roger Me," with bin Laden in the position of Roger Smith, the General Motors chairman who kept spurning Moore's attempts to talk with him about GM's abandonment of Flint, Mich., to rack and ruin. Moore's familiarity with gotcha journalism gives his burlesque form of it some comic traction. Spurlock goes for a parody docu-epic, yet the form is beyond his creative means.

It's fun to see Spurlock preparing for a face-off with Osama like a journalistic Rambo, fulfilling Americans' dreams of one good, strong man being able to right everybody's wrongs. But the conceit swiftly wears thin, especially when Spurlock resorts to a mock video game that spews out facts about the Middle East while he and Osama go mano a mano. Spurlock doesn't know how to use the conventions of man-hunt movies to give his film some slapstick tension: From the moment he sets foot in Egypt he's simply on a getting-to-know-you tour of the Middle East.

Spurlock insists he was genuinely trying to find the al-Qaida leader, but he does a lousy job of selling his own authenticity or of supplying the movie with a spine. His wife Alex's pregnancy must serve double duty as a focus of identification and a suspense point &

will he stay alive and make it home in time for her own "Operation Special Delivery"? No doubt the baby will be born under whatever astrological sign connotes cheap publicity.

Spurlock is better as a man of the middle rather than a man in a crossfire. When a 4-year-old Muslim in a friendly family circle begins to show off his religious devotions, Spurlock says he knows the Western media would portray the vignette as evidence of extremist indoctrination at an early age. It's a characteristically cheerful gag, but it's also, typically, too ingratiating, both to his interview subjects and to his viewers.

The best moment comes when an Israeli journalist says that the Palestinians and the Israelis have been held hostage by their extremists. This insight speaks to Spurlock's middleness and gives the movie a semblance of an argument, borne out by the mortifying treatment of Palestinians on the one hand and the scenes of a rocket-scarred Israeli schoolroom and ride-along with a Tel Aviv bomb squad on the other.

Most of the time, though, Spurlock is a rank amateur beating his head against the wall, whether he's accosting robed Muslim women at a mall or antagonizing ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem with his very presence.

A come-on in search of a movie, "Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?" is a failure even as a celluloid pamphlet. You might leave this film in a momentary fog, feeling you know less about bin Laden and the Middle East than you did going in.

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