UK Release Date: 7th October 2016
Runtime: 99 minutes
Director: John Dower
Writer: Louis Theroux
Starring: Louis Theroux, Marty Rathbun, Andrew Perez
Synopsis: Theroux explores the mysterious, reclusive world of the Church of Scientology and uses reenactments to dramatise alleged abuse on behalf of key figures within the Church.
The Church of Scientology, and its associated controversies, has provided fertile ground for documentary makers in the last decade. John Sweeney’s Panorama investigation, entitled Scientology and Me, and Alex Gibney’s feature-length expose Going Clear both gave the Church a thorough going-over in an attempt to dig up dirt on the famously combative institution. The latest filmmaker to step up to the plate is Louis Theroux, taking on the Church in his own incredibly polite way with My Scientology Movie, and unfortunately not bringing all that much that’s new to the table.
Theroux’s documentary opens as he tries to approach the Church of Scientology, but is knocked back. He forms a relationship with former Scientologist Marty Rathbun, who was a high-ranking member of the Church. Theroux and Rathbun decide to convey alleged wrongdoing on behalf of Church leader David Miscavige through reenactments, casting young actor Andrew Perez to bring Rathbun’s memories of Miscavige to life.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with My Scientology Movie, but it occupies an awkward position in the canon of documentaries about Scientology. In trying desperately to differentiate himself from what Gibney and Sweeney have done, Theroux gets lost and does not seem to have much in the way of clear direction. There are numerous strands of documentary on show in the film, from the reenactments clearly inspired by the powerful Act of Killing to the aspects of surreal comedy to the character study of Marty Rathbun. None of these strands are ever allowed to take control, leaving the film lost in its own attempts at originality.
That’s not to say that elements of the film aren’t entertaining. Theroux is a compelling central figure as always and he brings his easygoing, undeniable charm to the film in every scene. Some of the sequences in which he repeatedly hammers Scientologists lurking nearby with deliberately inane, repetitive questions may seem a little juvenile on the surface, but they are certainly amusing even as they push the story even further away from the reenactments, which are easily the most interesting elements of the film.
My Scientology Movie has a real secret weapon in Andrew Perez. His portrayal of Scientology leader David Miscavige is skin-crawling and terrifying, especially in the genuinely shocking climactic reenactment that shakes the film violently into life as it comes to an end. Given that Theroux and Rathbun also cast an actor to portray Tom Cruise, who is subsequently not used, it’s probably fair to say that a lot of reenactment material ended up on the cutting room floor. Scientology vigorously denies any of the wrongdoing alleged against Miscavige, but this fictionalised version of the man certainly comes across as a tyrant thanks to Perez’s alarming, brilliant work.
The most infuriating aspect of My Scientology Movie, though, is that it hasn’t a single clue who makes up its audience. Those who are new to Scientology are not given enough information to know how the Church works, what they believe and why they are so controversial, whilst seasoned veterans of movies like Going Clear aren’t given anything new by Theroux’s take on the story. Theroux might well be one of the heavyweights of the modern documentary, but My Scientology Movie is such a light confection that one sharp breeze could totally blow it away.
Pop or Poop?
Louis Theroux brings his trademark easygoing Britishness to Scientology with My Scientology Movie, but he seems to have left behind his forensic eye for detail. As entertaining and likeable as Theroux is, that cannot disguise the fact that there’s very little meat on this particular bone. This certainly stands no chance of unseating Going Clear as the definitive documentary on the Church of Scientology.
Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.