So if Borat Sagdiyev had been a British vegetarian who thought all chain stores were an embodiment of The Man -- nah, that's a totally unfair way to describe America Unchained, which screened at Austin Film Festival. The narrator of this documentary is far less over-the-top than Borat, but he's still engaging enough to save the film from terminal earnestness.
British comedy writer/performer Dave Gorman is our tour guide on this film. He tells us that the last time he took a tour of the United States, he was booked in big-chain hotels and ended up eating primarily in chain restaurants. He decides that this time he wants to see the "real" America, so he plans to drive from L.A. to New York (coast to coast) without giving any money to "The Man" -- no buying from any kind of chain, be it a hotel, fast-food restaurant or most difficult of all, a gas station. Gorman and his original director/camera operator set off from California in a car they didn't buy from a chain, either ... a 1975 Torino station wagon, which looks like the family car from my childhood when we took long road trips ourselves (not unlike the Griswolds in the first Vacation movie).
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The gas stations are what truly hinder Gorman's progress across the country -- you can't find non-chain gas stations along major interstates. At one point, he ends up succumbing to a chain after someone from the station rescues him when the car runs out of gas. However, it's a small chain and the sweet-tempered woman doesn't even charge him for the tow, thus confusing Gorman slightly. Maybe all chains aren't terrible? But in the next scene, he is still resolutely avoiding all chains of any kind. He doesn't distinguish between locally owned franchise chains or corporate-owned chains -- it's all The Man to him, all hindering the individuality and originality that he feels should epitomize America.
The movie is a little too heavy-handed about its anti-chain mentality, veering on propaganda at times. I try to shop at local businesses whenever possible, but the rigid attitude and the continual gushing about the charms of local businesses wore on me a little. Did they really travel across the country without a single bad experience at a locally owned restaurant? (I do have to admire them for refusing to buy food at the Wal-Mart on Thanksgiving Day and eating instead a breakfast of boxed macaroni and cheese, purchased locally the day before.)
Gorman is a lively subject and the road trip is full of entertaining moments and pitfalls. The sequence where the filmmakers stumble upon an ice-cream parlor the day before it closes is lovely and touching. However, the movie lacks any kind of background or history, to help explain how American towns and highways have reached the point where all the gas stations are affiliated with corporations, and why people seem to prefer stopping at McDonald's to finding a local cafe. Gorman is also publishing a book called America Unchained next year -- perhaps he'll provide more context there.
I liked America Unchained as a lighthearted look at local businesses throughout America. But I wished the movie could have been something more, an examination of why many people love restaurants where the food is the same in Missouri as it is in Washington, why some folks prefer generic chain hotels to, for example, a B&B shaped like a beagle, and how we reached the point where gas stations are nearly all franchised. America Unchained gives us a humorous "what" but without much "how" or "why" -- despite that, it's still entertaining.