The world of multi-level marketing is a subject ripe for satire, especially from an LDS perspective. Utah has long been a haven for MLM companies who have found significant growth opportunities among its close-knit religious communities and abundance of returned missionaries with “sales” experience.
Writer/director Loki Mulholland wants Believe — filmed in the “mockumentary” manner of 2004′s Sons of Provo – to be that satire, which details a powerful million-strong MLM and some of its members. Through the fictional “Believe Industries”, Mulholland has created a conglomeration of all the positive and negative (…okay, mostly negative) aspects of multi-level marketing (with a dash of religion thrown in) to create a company that promises great wealth and success to those who can not only sell to their friends and neighbors, but recruit their friends and neighbors to sell to their friends and neighbors, creating a “down-line” of revenue producers.
(Make money from other people’s efforts? How can you lose? Oh, wait, other people take the money from *your* efforts? Hmmm…)
Believe (official site / IMDB entry) won a few awards at local film festivals before appearing on DVD earlier this year. Despite some customary shortcomings in terms of budget and acting, Believe has a good premise and some clever ideas — however, it undercuts its own satire through lack of subtlety, and has a very curious entwinement with religion which the film never quite reconciles.
Let’s look at some specifics:
Satire: Believe wants to be a biting satire, and its official site notes a pedigree of similar fake documentary films such as Christopher Guest’s Best In Show and A Mighty Wind.
However, there’s a secret to good satire which Christopher Guest has mastered, but is missed in large part by Believe: You have to take the subject matter seriously. Dead seriously — you have to treat the target as if it really was the most important thing in the world (as the characters in the movie do).
Believe cheats by *openly* having the documentarian behind the camera ask the interview subjects deliberately mocking questions. Even worse, the interviews with the “Believe Industries” members are interspersed with “people off the street” interviews (which, if it weren’t for the presence of Kirby Heyborne, may be interpreted as actual interviews with real people) who discuss the questionable ethics behind MLMs, often stating directly to the camera that they are a waste of time and money.
You can’t do that. You can’t create good, effective satire if you’re deliberately undercutting the seriousness of the subject matter by attacking and mocking it directly.
A proper satire, like Best in Show, puts its subjects in the best possible light — taking their passions and obsessions at face value. Then, it lets the inherent absurdity in everything that follows come naturally to light. You don’t ask the subjects purposely mocking questions — you ask them completely serious questions that result in ludicrous answers.
Believe doesn’t appear to trust that the audience is going to get the joke — it wants to ensure that its audience *knows* that MLMs are bad by pointing it out in obvious ways, instead of allowing viewers to grasp the subtleties of the satire themselves. The end result is a movie that has the tools to be a smart, effective satire, but doesn’t appear fully committed to it. Too many elements are dumbed down to make sure the point gets across.
Subtlety: In a similar fashion, Believe contains a handful of good, subtle observations and jokes, and a handful of others that have their effectiveness hamstrung by, again, making things too obvious without trusting the audience to pick up little things on their own.
One specific example: Believe presents us with the idea of a “MLM-rehabilitation” center, which helps former MLM members go through ‘recruit-your-friends-and-neighbors” detox so they can rejoin the normal world. (This, by the way, is a *great* satirical idea — one of the best Believe has to offer.)
As part of this sequence, we are introduced to a guy going through MLM “withdrawal” who, according to his therapist — describing it in hushed, sober terms — was committed to rehabilitation by his family after “an incident at his father’s funeral”.
Stop! Just stop right there! That throwaway line is perfect as it is — we already know enough about the context to use our imaginations as to what the “incident” at the funeral was. We don’t need to have it spelled out in specifics.
Believe doesn’t stop there, though. Immediately after, we are introduced to the man’s wife, who describes the incident at the funeral again, without adding anything new. Unnecessary. Then, we are further shown a dramatized flashback of the actual incident, where (as we suspected) the man was a little too enthusiastic about trying to recruit other people at the funeral to be his ‘down-line’.
We already knew that! Those two subsequent segments didn’t add *anything* to the joke beyond what the off-hand comment from the therapist already provided. In this case, Believe needs to…’believe’ in itself more; trusting that it has some inherently good ideas, and that audiences will understand the subtleties of those good ideas without needing our hands held.
Second example: one subtext of the movie involves the role of husband and wife, and one scene involves a “Believer” named Mark who asks his wife to do something unnecessary and submissive by turning off a radio that’s sitting right by him. Compare this to a more obvious scene earlier in the movie where Mark directly asks the wife of one of his recruits to sit off to the side and be “supportive”…by being silent. Same general idea — one presented in a subtle (but still unmistakable) manner, one in an obvious manner. I don’t think there’s any argument that the first, understated example, gets the point across just as effectively as the second.
One subtle idea that succeeds: One “Believer” shows off a picture of the company founder in a proud way…and if you watch closely, you can see that the frame he was storing the picture in originally contained a (now-covered) picture of he and his wife from their wedding. An effective scene, specifically because it doesn’t call immediate and obvious attention to itself. Again, there are good ideas here — Believe would be better if it had more faith in them.
Plot hole: Believe contains one big plot contradiction that undermines the very MLM structure the movie was founded on: At the beginning of the film, we meet Mark, who is very committed to Believe Industries, and who recruits Adam — a laid-off steel worker — to participate. At Mark’s request, Adam invites a handful of his former co-workers to a group meeting where Mark demonstrates the products and the philosophy behind Believe Industries. All of the co-workers end up joining.
Later, we see the results: Adam starts receiving large checks due to the people he recruited…which annoys and frustrates Mark as he now sees Adam earning a lot more money in just a few months than Mark has through (presumably) several years of hard work.
How is this possible? Mark *recruited* Adam. Adam is in his “down-line”, therefore the people that Adam recruited at the meeting that Mark officiated in, would also be in his “down-line”.
It should be impossible, according to any known MLM scheme, for Adam to end up with more money than Mark, because Mark is higher in the chain. That’s how MLM’s work — the money from lower levels is always passed up the chain to the higher levels. Successful MLMers always make more money from their children’s children than from the children themselves. (By comparison, reportedly 52% of the profits from NuSkin products are earned by the top 100 organizations in the company)
This is a strange error, given the other accurate elements of MLM culture portrayed in the movie. However, this unexplained occurance undermines this important plot point and appears irreconcilable with the movie’s own MLM organization. (Mark even demonstrates the ‘multi-levelness’ of the company through a graph in his demo…)
Religion: The one final area that deserves discussion is the juxtaposition in Believe between multi-level marketing and religion.
Now, there’s no question religion and MLMs intersect, especially in Utah, but usually only in terms of social networking — the places to meet new ‘recruits’. MLMs like NuSkin and Amway aren’t ‘religion’ to their members in Utah, because most of them already have a religion, and MLMs are just a way to make money from the people they go to church with.
Mulholland takes this one step further in Believe, presenting an environment where “Believe Industries” serves as both the road to financial success and spiritual success as well. The religious element of “Believe Industries” — which includes not only products to buy, but self-help books and life philosophies influencing all elements of its members’ lives — may have Scientology as its closest comparison in principle, and represents an interesting satirical direction…were it not for one problem: “Believe” is made by an LDS filmmaker for a primarily LDS audience.
Put simply, virtually all the satirical targets in Believe contain enough religious connections to be *directly* compared to LDS policy and culture. Was that deliberate, or accidental? The LDS comparison provides a subtext under the whole of Believe that’s either remarkably bold and brilliant, or remarkably naïve. I’m honestly not sure which…
An example: one “Believer” couple talks about how their “up-line” has counseled them to avoid having kids to focus more on their work in the company. Given the LDS target audience, aren’t we supposed to immediately juxtapose this counsel with the general LDS encouragement to have kids instead? Seems logical, but consider it from an outside perspective: what’s the difference between “Believe” leaders counseling their members not to have kids when they have the desire to do so, and the common LDS counsel from leaders for couples to have kids regardless of their financial or educational circumstances?
Members of “Believe Industries” are portrayed as respecting and revering the founder of “Believe” to the extent that they place his picture in prominent locations in their home, and hang on his every spoken and written word like gospel. Kind of like, you know, the LDS First Presidency in LDS homes?
Likewise, the scenes discussed earlier with the wives of “Believe” men being ‘supportive’ of their husband…by being silent and submissive. While presented in an exaggerated manner within the film, is that not supposed to directly reflect upon the LDS counsel concerning male and female roles, which *aren’t* that different in practice than what we see in Believe?
(At the end of the movie, Mark’s wife writes a “Recovery from Believe” book, which becomes a best-seller. Surely Mulholland is aware that lots of people have similarly written “Recovery from Mormonism” books in real life? Is Believe deliberately trying to create that comparison?)
If Believe were not made by LDS filmmakers and aimed at an LDS audience, one could easily make the case that it was actually a subtle and subversive *anti*-Mormon film, simply because the non-religious MLM targets for satire have obvious enough LDS equivalents that one can’t help reflect on the similarity.
I honestly can’t tell if that was the director’s goal, or something entirely accidental. If the latter, that seems like a spectacular miscalculation, given that LDS culture is not as far removed from the “cult-like” Scientology-ish behavior portrayed by “Believers” in the movie as the filmmakers seem to think.
(The fact that an ‘expert’ out of nowhere brings up the “cult” angle in regards to Believe Industries at all, is immediately questionable. Is the purpose to imply, “Mormons aren’t a ‘cult’ — here’s what a *real* cult looks like”? If so, the targets and examples are not nearly distant enough from LDS culture to make this point effectively.)
Are audience members really supposed to ignore the similarities between the two? If not, what are we supposed to conclude? Believe has a clear purpose in steering people away from MLMs. Does it want to steer people away from religion, too?
Final Grade: C+