Gonzo documentarian extraordinaire Morgan Spurlock has answered one of the pressing question of our age: the best way to explore the modern face of Islam and Middle East is not by reducing those topics to a video game.

This is exactly the tack that Spurlock uses in Where in the World Is Osama bin Laden?, a well-intentioned mess of a film that springs from the conceit that since movies like Rambo teach us that the best way to solve complex geopolitical problems is by sending one guy in to go after the bad guys, why not try applying that strategy in the real world? When I first heard that in the film's trailer, I chuckled; I did not realise that Spurlock was actually serious about it.

And so we come to the film's conceit, in which rhe director, egged on by his wife's pregnancy, goes to several countries in North Africa and the Middle East hoping to find Osama bin Laden. Not actually, of course. Spurlock may be an egoist (he showboats in this film much more than Michael Moore has ever imagined doing), but he's not a complete fucking idiot, and the ultimate conclusion he makes that he'll never find the possibly-dead Al Qaeda leader is not exactly a surprise. Instead, the film is really about his journeys through Islamic countries both reasonably egalitarian and frighteningly theocratic, trying to dig up an answer to the question of why bin Laden has such sway over the Muslim peoples of the world (answer: resentment over Western military interference so that America and Europe never want for oil, and not only have I saved you the price of a ticket, I even added that bit about oil). In the process, he finds out that they're all just like us, really, good people who don't care much for extremists of any stripe and don't want much more than the peace to raise their kids up safe and sound. Except for the crazy Hasidic Jews in Israel who try to beat Spurlock up before he even has a chance to ask them any questions.

It's not a terrible thing to make a movie that provides insights most thinking people came to years ago, but in an effort to make his sometimes downer of a film more palatable, Spurlock has elected to doll it up in some unbelievably gaudy clothes. This is effectively the zany and fun!! movie about why the average Muslim despises the hell out of the United States, with not one but two cartoon sequences, the director's constantly jokey tone, and a narrative framework comparing his quest to a multi-level fighting game all jostling to be the most obnoxious element of film that turns from charming to irritating with lightning speed. Early on, when Spurlock presents a music video parody with five bin Laden lookalikes dancing to "Can't Touch This," I was genuinely amused. An hour later, when the film hadn't fundamentally changed its style, that had change to impatience and frustration. In a film like Bowling for Columbine, the rare bit of zany humor added a counterpoint to the film's generally dour atmosphere and gave it bite; but nothing but cartoons and CGI and snark add up to a lot of personality and virtually no insight whatsoever.

The issue, I think, is that problem common to "issue" documentaries: who is the audience? From the slaphappy tone and extremely reductive approach to his topic, I'd guess it's young people who haven't ever given a moment's thought to the Arab world. But you know who doesn't go to see documentaries about world culture? Young people. And the rest of America generally. Basically, the big problem with any film that focuses on the Middle East is that anyone who's at all interested in the topic is certainly interested enough to know more than nothing at all, and Where...Is OBL?) is pitched at the people who know nothing at all, and don't even know why they would want to know something.

I can't take credit for calling Osama bin Laden "OBL," by the way. I took that one from Spurlock, who does it several times in the film. I can't think of a better way to demonstrate its humor than that.

The worst part about the film? Thinking about what a really rigorous film made with similar access might have achieved (the ability the filmmakers had to move from country to country and co-opt a literal truckload of American soldiers to be their bodyguard borders on obscene, given the low stakes involved). More than once in the film, Spurlock was in a situation that might have made for a really fantastic documentary: such as his time spent in Egypt, really the only part of the film that came as anything like a surprise, where he chipped away at the impression we in the US have of that country in particular; or his experiences in two very different high schools in Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan; his man on the street interviews suggesting that Palestinians kind of resent the rest of the Arab world for using them as a pet cause. Or the urgent question of why exactly the Hasidic Jews threatened the film crew with physical violence. A really interesting and eye-opening movie is frequently right on the edges of the film that Spurlock made, and it's just damn annoying to watch so many wonderful moments slip past.

The jaw-dropping awfulness of using his wife's pregnancy as a plot hook, I shall not comment upon.

Two years ago, Albert Brooks released the fairly dubious Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World, with a rather similar premise. That movie was all kinds of problematic, but compared to Where... it was a model of geo-political savvy and honest self-reflection. Spurlock is too pleased with himself to let his movie be anything but the dim joke he imagined, and as a result it ends up rather like that old Onion op-ed, "Somebody Should Do Something About All the Problems". His showmanship far outweighs his acumen, and the result is so shallow and silly that it makes reading The Nation seem like the deepest kind of bliss.