Time was the American Dream meant simply holding down a steady job that put food on the table. Today, that’s just not enough for people. No one wants to put in 40 years working for the Man. We just want to get rich quick, buy the yacht and golf club membership, and retire early. That’s why we live in the era of the scam. It’s not just the ones shaped like a pyramid either. We also have Nigerian email scams, stolen identities, and Ponzi Schemes. Basically, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. And that is the premise of “Change Your Life.”
Shot in the popular mockumentary style, “Change Your Life” documents several gullible Americans who become apostles of a self-help guru named Simon Martinez. He wears gold chains, speaks in rhyming clichés, and tells his disciples that they can earn $3000 more per month if only they follow his simple, 35-step program. Of course, it’s all a grift, designed so that the only person who can actually make money is Martinez himself.
The film makes no secret of the fact that everyone is being taken for a ride. It constantly makes fun of the cult of self-help culture and the very American desire to make as much money as possible by working as little as possible. These are certainly very compelling and significant themes. But there’s one problem. “Change Your Life” isn’t very funny. The jokes are incredibly PG and on-the-nose. Furthermore, the Christopher Guest style is tired and outdated, especially from people who aren’t Christopher Guest.
OK, so there are several problems. Besides that of Martinez, the characters are terrible. I get that they’re attempting to portray average Americans with no-self confidence and soft morals. But having them be so unlikable makes it seem like the victims of these scams deserve what they get. Sure, at this point, we should all be aware of the tried-and-true methods of parting people from their money. But the real villains are creating new spins on the old tricks all the time. Thanks to Amway, most of us know how to identify a Pyramid Scheme, but a Ponzi Scheme wasn’t in the common lexicon until Bernie Madoff. They made an example of him, but that isn’t going to stop people like him from adapting their methods and trying again.
The film’s saving grace (no pun intended) comes from a very astute parallel between self-help culture and organized religion. At one point, there occurs a standoff between our scheming protagonists, a pair of Mormons, and an Evangelical couple who are all trying to be the first ones to ring a doorbell. These parallels arise again when Martinez mentions that Jesus was the first self-made man, going from a poor carpenter to a man with billions of followers.
With better character development and a less hackneyed narrative structure, “Change Your Life” could have been a poignant criticism of the modern American Dream. Instead, much like the characters who fall for Martinez’s lip service, it’s kind of a pathetic loser.
2009, Un-rated, 66 minutes, Creek Park Pictures
2 1/2 stars
X-posted from Film Threat.