My Scientology Movie is a disappointingly shallow big screen debut for Louis Theroux
Somewhere around the time he travelled to America to meet the Westboro Baptist Church, Louis Theroux become Britain’s favourite documentarian. With his gently probing questions, bemused look, and dry sense of humour, Theroux excelled at shining a light on misfits and outsiders, stepping back to allow them to tell their own story. In his big screen debut, My Scientology Movie, Theroux tackles his toughest subject yet – The Church of Scientology. Denied access to any members of the church however, Theroux turns the camera on himself, with mixed results.
Those expecting a documentary about Scientology are sure to be disappointed, for My Scientology Movie offers little in the way of new information or insight; instead, the film covers Theroux and director John Dower’s L.A. journey as they decide to recreate disturbing anecdotes about the church’s leader, David Miscavige. Joined by ex-Scientologist Marty Rathbun, Theroux spends most of the film going through bizarre church rituals, receiving legal letters, and clashing with “squirrell-busting” cameramen and other Scientologists intent on disrupting his project. While the film is good at making Scientology look silly and childish, it only scratches the surface of one of America’s most powerful groups.
As anyone who watched Alex Gibney’s staggering documentary Going Clear will know, Scientology seems ludicrous right up until they threaten IRS or frame innocent people for bomb threats. It’s disappointing that Theroux ditches the more thoughtful tone of his recent documentaries on Jimmy Savile and binge drinking for the knockabout comedy of his earlier Weird Weekends series. Big laughs come from Theroux auditioning Tom Cruise impersonators or getting into Kafkaesque arguments with Miscavige-sent stalkers, but it all feels a little too easy. In the film’s worst sequence, Theroux pauses a video of Tom Cruise and comments on his intense eyes. When a religion has a history as abusive and deranged as Scientology, making fun of Tom Cruise’s face is just plain lazy.
In the past, Theroux has tackled some tricky interview subjects, but none have dodged the question quite so harshly as Marty Rathbun, the troubled former Inspector General of the church. My Scientology Movie is mostly based around Rathbun’s testimony, and while the film’s most entertaining sections feature perfectly acted recreations of infamous stories about Miscavige (Andrew Perez, the actor hired to play Miscavige, deserves more work on the back of this), Theroux’s treatment of Rathbun is questionable. Despite Rathbun being Theroux’s major advisor, Louis repeatedly turns on him, bringing up his shady past. Though Marty is far from innocent and has skeletons in the closet, it’s cruel of Louis to use him for information whilst also turning him into a figure of evil (in the post-screening Q & A, director Dower revealed that Rathbun has since fallen out with the two).
At his best, Louis Theroux captures astounding revelations and introduces us to some of the most interesting people in the world. Lacking interview subjects, in-depth reporting, or any genuine reason to exist beyond curiosity, My Scientology Movie can only be looked at as a disappointment. Theroux hasn’t lost his dry wit and when the film offers genuinely original footage (Theroux confronting his stalkers and chatting with bemused police offers), it becomes very entertaining. However, Scientology is treated as a joke when it should be treated as a menace, and Theroux’s attitude is far too flippant; My Scientology Movie gets lots of big laughs, yet fails to land a single dramatic blow. As a film about Louis Theroux making a film? Entertaining. As a film about Scientology? Nothing to see here.
By Harry J. Ford
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