“Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?” It’s a question to which Morgan Spurlock probably never really intended to find the answer.
To say that the “Super Size Me” director’s latest documentary is a gimmick would be a gross understatement. It’s also a given — that’s Spurlock’s trademark modus operandi. Just as nobody put a gun to his head and made him eat McDonald’s for 30 days straight in his amusing 2004 debut, no one forced him to visit some of the most dangerous places on the globe seeking the elusive al-Qaida leader.
The journey — which takes him from his New York home to such countries as Egypt, Morocco, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Pakistan — isn’t just reckless but selfish. He says he was inspired by the impending birth of his first child to find bin Laden and hoped to make the world a safer place.
Yet he leaves his wife, Alexandra, at home to worry about him as he repeatedly puts himself in harm’s way over several months. (Spurlock admits in the film’s production notes that his wife objected to him taking this trip with a baby coming — and who could blame her? — but he went anyway, in the name of entertainment.)
After an animated introduction in which he depicts himself battling bin Laden mano a mano, video-game style, Spurlock prepares himself for the various perils that lie ahead by working out, getting all his shots, undergoing kidnapping training and learning what to do should a live grenade tumble into his path. It’s a “Rocky”-esque montage.
Then as he jets from place to place, he provides glib, oversimplified tidbits about Mideast history along the way: the Islamic Revolution as a cartoon; al-Qaida biggies on baseball cards. But he also grows his beard out and wears local dress whenever possible in a futile but well-intentioned attempt at blending into his surroundings.
The one useful thing to emerge from Spurlock’s travels are the discussions he has with regular folks about bin Laden, the United States, world relations and their personal dreams. These parts feel enlightening and real, and reflect Spurlock’s regular-guy relatability, which has always been his strongest asset.
He does seem genuinely interested in getting to know these people, and humbled by their hospitality. A law student in Egypt invites him over to his apartment to spend the evening with him and his family; on the opposite end of the economic spectrum, a Moroccan man takes Spurlock to dinner at the 200-square-foot house in the slums where he grew up and where he and his wife are now raising their own family. With a son on the way, Spurlock asks whether his new friend has any parenting advice; later, we’ll see young Laken arrive in an underwater birth.
Despite such substantive moments, the silliness is far from over. Spurlock has a little fun trying out a rocket launcher with members of the U.S. Army in Afghanistan. In Tel Aviv, he tags along with an Israeli bomb squad and applauds the remote-controlled robot for successfully destroying a suspicious package that contained a bikini. “Good job, HAL,” he jokes, and gets R2-D2ish bleeps in response.
Then he bangs us over the head with a concluding voiceover, informing us of something we’ve surely deduced on our own already: It’s a small world after all. “We all want the same things for our families,” he intones brightly, as if buoyed by this recent discovery himself — things like health, happiness, a good education.
Meanwhile, his wife is back in Manhattan by herself (except for the camera crew, of course) having early contractions and telling him about them on the cell phone.
“Here I am, missing it all,” Spurlock laments once he hangs up. Certainly, he had a choice in the matter.