It's a familiar scene: Michael Moore is on the doorstep of a corporate HQ, demanding entry. The General Motors security guard eyes him indulgently; Moore won't be getting through, but that's not really the point of the encounter, and everyone knows it. "Hey, I've been doing this for 20 years!" Moore jokes. "I think it's time someone let me in."
In the two decades since Moore's first documentary, Roger and Me, took on corporate wrongdoing, he has delivered enjoyable broadsides against the gun lobby, the "war on terror" and the gaping holes in US health care. And if American big business has not been noticeably dented by his efforts, he has certainly transformed the art of documentary-making in the process. Moore's combination of stunts and polemic, searing reportage and jauntily montaged archive material, defined a new genre and unleashed an army of imitators: single-issue satirists such as Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) and Jason Reitman (Thank You for Smoking), eager to out-gonzo each other in their quest to score a hit.
But Capitalism: a Love Story is not so much tub-thumping as the exasperated outburst of a revolutionary who has just noticed that he's all alone out there on the barricades. This time, Moore trains his sights on the bankers who have trousered Treasury bailout money while they snuff out the jobs and homes of a vulnerable working class. He employs his trademark visual gags, surrounding Wall Street with yellow "crime scene" tape, or backing an armoured truck up to the doors of Goldman Sachs. Yet as he is frogmarched out of the usual series of shiny lobbies, it becomes obvious that he's not getting anywhere by being cute. At one point, he attempts to vox-pop bankers about how derivatives actually work. "Can anybody give me some advice?" he yells. "Don't make any more movies," a passer-by snaps back.
Moore keeps his ad hoc critic in the edit, partly because the exchange is funny, but also, perhaps, as a warning to his audience that he may not be making very many more films of this sort. Moore's shambling clown act doesn't show the passion it once did; he is at his most compelling here when meeting victims of the credit crunch. Even if these sequences have a makeshift quality - there's a sense that he simply scooped them up along the way rather than pieced them into a linear argument - the plight of the tearful interviewees is genuinely moving.
Likewise, Moore burns with conviction when presenting the results of the patient, unflashy research that underpins his rhetoric. It's impossible not to recoil in horror at evidence that many large companies such as Wal-Mart gamble on their employees dying young and take out secret life policies on them. In the jargon, this is known as "dead peasant insurance".
Moore argues, albeit haphazardly, that in fact it's capitalism that is dead, mortally wounded when the supposedly immutable, win-or-die law of the market was revoked by corporations deemed "too big to fail". Along the way he rallies God, Roosevelt and the revolutionary principles of the US constitution to his cause, before attempting to find crumbs of hope in Barack Obama's election victory and the prospect of a popular uprising among those "peasants" who remain inconveniently alive.
Yet this is precisely where Moore loses his nerve. He cheers on squatters who break back into their repossessed homes, and he urges his audience to take collective action. But the word "socialism" dies on his lips. Interviewing the only left-wing politician in Congress, Senator Bernie Sanders, he carefully stresses that he is a democratic socialist and not, you know, the evil kind. From a European perspective, it seems perverse to spend two hours criticising capitalism without once referring to Marx or attempting to extract any lessons from the chequered history of socialist experiment in other parts of the world. But clearly, even when preaching to his own undeniably converted audience, the s-word is too big a leap for Moore.
Instead, the film quietly poses its question about life after capitalism. Even if Moore isn't yet sure what the answer is, it seems he's starting to think it doesn't lie in joking around.
Lisa Mullen writes about film for Sight and Sound magazine.