As Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone’s scabrous political correspondent, has often observed, one of the ways that Wall Street protects itself is by cloaking its activities in jargon so dense and dull that it’s impenetrable to the average observer. In “Two Raging Grannies,” a documentary by Norwegian director Havard Bustnes, two economic novices try to understand the complexities of the global financial system, and its obsession with growth.
The twist: They may be neophytes, but they’re old enough to remember the Great Depression.
Shirley Morrison, a spry 90-year-old, is concerned for the future that her granddaughter will inherit. Her arthritic, acid-tongued 84-year-old pal, Hinda Kipnis, is more inclined to cynicism, lamenting the wanton consumerism that she sees around her. In an early scene, she loses her cool while surveying the toy aisle in a supermarket: “I can’t stand looking at this stuff. It’s garbage!”
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||82 minutes|
The film never explains why these two have been chosen as its navigators, which is a little disingenuous. The “Raging Grannies” of the title is the name of a pensioner-led activist organization to which both women belong. Shirley’s talent for confrontation makes a lot more sense when you know that she’s been arrested for protesting in the past.
When they sit in on a university economics class, Shirley manages to get them ejected after she keeps interrupting the lecturer to ask questions. She repeats the trick at a Wall Street charity function in New York, in a sequence that veers from comedy into more sinister territory.
As Shirley is led away by security after crashing the stage (“That was my mother,” quips the speaker), an unidentified goon in a suit presses up close to her hidden camera and threatens her in the expletive-clogged language of a mafioso. After the gentle humor of the preceding scenes, the tirade comes as an ugly jolt.
“Two Raging Grannies” lays out its thesis early on, when the ladies secure an audience with retired physics professor Albert Bartlett, after watching his seminal “Arithmetic, Population and Energy” lecture on YouTube. Charmingly, the teacher and students appear to be of a similar vintage.
“We’re just beginning to think about this situation,” Hinda explains.
“You’re awfully late!” he responds.
Bartlett uses a mathematical concept, the exponential function, to clearly explain how current worldwide growth is unsustainable. Supporting U.S.-style levels of consumption across the entire globe would require not one Earth but four or five. “It’s hard to find good planets these days,” he drily observes.
It’s a revelatory moment, lent extra poignancy as Bartlett died shortly after the documentary was filmed.
Following an interview with Joshua Farley, an expert in the emerging field of ecological economics, the ladies seem convinced they’ve found a viable alternative in the steady-state system, which involves shifting “from quantitative growth to qualitative improvement.”
“It was so much information, my head’s spinning,” says Hinda, awestruck.
“Time to take a nap,” quips Shirley.
It’s too bad that these funny, fiercely inquisitive women never get to interrogate any major player from the financial industry. An investment management adviser agrees to meet Shirley, but responds lamely when pressed about the economic growth issue.
As a result, “Two Raging Grannies” can feel a little too neat in its conclusions. Big on spirit but low on facts, it’s a call to arms that doesn’t supply much theoretical ammunition.
In the end, it’s the bond between Hinda and Shirley that leaves the more lasting impression. The film’s searing, simplistic indictment of modern economics takes second place to its poignant portrayal of friendship surviving the ravages of old age.
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