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No "Intelligence" evident in Stein documentary

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Managing to make the films of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock look like dry, scholarly treatises by comparison, “Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed” more than lives up to its subtitle.

Co-written by and starring Ben Stein -- whose credentials range from serving as a speechwriter for Richard Nixon to game show host to acting credits including the beleaguered teacher in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” -- this documentary purporting to examine the issue of freedom of expression in the debate between the competing arguments of “intelligent design” and Darwinism squanders the potential fascination of its topic with its simplistic, heavy-handed approach.

The independently distributed film earned just $3.15 million during its first weekend across North America, according to studio estimates issued Sunday.

The film’s main thesis is that scientists and educators are being persecuted, in some cases fired from their positions, because they had the effrontery to challenge their institutions’ scientific orientation toward the theory of evolution.

The deep-voiced, stone-faced Stein thus conducts a series of solicitous interviews with a number of such figures, in between his own musings about the beginnings of life. The Berlin Wall is used as a central visual metaphor for the suppression of such ideas, with director Nathan Frankowski employing archival footage of both its construction and eventual tearing down at numerous points.

Indeed, copious use is made of vintage film clips, often to truly goofy effect. From the image of a guillotine in conjunction with a professor’s being fired to clips of Khrushchev pounding his shoe at the United Nations to scenes from such films as “Planet of the Apes” and “The Wizard of Oz,” the proceedings start to most closely resemble HBO’s late sitcom “Dream On.”

Music is also used for ironic if predictable effect, with snippets heard from such songs as “Personal Jesus,” “Spirit in the Sky” and “Imagine.”

Many of the central ideas expressed are truly offensive, such as the attempt to link Darwinism and Nazism, complete with footage of a grim-faced (not that he ever looks any different) Stein touring a Nazi concentration camp. At another point, the morose host ventures to the lair of the enemy himself, Darwin’s home, and engages in a lengthy staring contest with a life-sized sculpture of the scientist.

Not surprisingly, there is a climactic showdown between Stein and the leading atheist of the day, Richard Dawkins (author of “The God Delusion”), that is as unenlightening as everything that has preceded it.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter