Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?

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Morgan Spurlock knows the importance of being earnest. In Super Size Me (2004), he established a personal documentary style that's part activism, part self-sacrifice, and infused with a wry sense of humor. While chronicling the consequences of a McDonald's-only diet, he paints a devastating portrait of a fast-food nation sacrificing health for convenience.

The genial Spurlock conveys a savvy intelligence and aw-shucks guilelessness, and his ability to be simultaneously calculating and sincere distinguishes him from other filmmakers who put themselves at the center of documentaries.

His latest fusion of the personal and political — Where in the World is Osama bin Laden? — is on a much grander scale, but isn't markedly different in approach. Prompted by impending fatherhood (Spurlock is married to vegan chef Alexandra Jamieson), he sets out to find the $25-million-dollar man, thereby making a scary world safer for his new child.

Spurlock preps by reading up on his target (dubbed "OBL") and the roots of his radical movement. He studies Arabic, familiarizes himself with Islamic and cultural rituals (growing his trademark handlebar mustache into a beard), and takes security courses with the sobering names of "Reality Based Personal Protection" and "Surviving Hostile Regions."

Then he's off to Egypt, Morocco, Israel and the West Bank, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and, finally, Afghanistan and Pakistan. With his own particular brand of relentless naïveté, he conducts man-on-the-street interviews throughout the Middle East, and also seeks out journalists, politicians, clerics, activists, soldiers, businessmen, students and average citizens for sit-down conversations.

Spurlock quickly establishes that the boogeyman he's pursuing is now more symbol than flesh (eliciting widely divergent responses) and finds common ground with his subjects, whose concerns are more local — their families and regional politics — than global.

This "people are people wherever you go" attitude is familiar to viewers of Spurlock's FX series, 30 Days, and the fast-paced Where recalls an episode in which a white Southern Christian spends a month with a Muslim family in Dearborn. But the breezy humorist can't give up his comedic premise in exchange for insight, and keeps looking for OBL long after he establishes the ineffectiveness of his quest.

Utilizing video game graphics (including a West Virginia back-yard throw-down with OBL) and animated sequences that glibly summarize U.S. involvement with despots, Spurlock's lighthearted tone often clashes with his serious intent. This time, he's bitten off more than he can chew.

Serena Donadoni writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail her at letters@metrotimes.com.

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