“Pay 2 Play”: Do not pass Go, do not enter politics

A protestor stands on a mock Monopoly game board on the street during May Day demonstrations in Los Angeles

“Pay 2 Play” opens Friday at Sundance Cinemas. Not rated, 1:29, two and a half stars out of four. Cap Times and Nation columnist John Nichols (who is in the film) and myself will host a post-show chat after the 7 p.m. show on Tuesday, Sept. 30 at Sundance.

“Monopoly” is kind of a weird game. It has no finish line. The winner is determined not because they reach any particular goal, but because all the other players have gone bankrupt. It’s not enough to win; every other player has to lose, too.

Filmmaker John Ennis very effectively uses “Monopoly” as a metaphor and a motif throughout his rabble-rousing documentary “Pay 2 Play,” showing how the game neatly mirrors our current electoral process. It’s not enough for the wealthy and well-connected to have some influence over politics, or even most of the influence. They must have all the influence, giving more and more money, electing their candidates to every position, from President down to dogcatcher. Nobody from “outside the system” can be allowed into the process. And the gutting of current campaign finance laws makes it easier for them to do it, too.

Sometimes watching “Pay 2 Play” is like playing “Monopoly” with a six-year-old; they’re into the game for a while, but then their mind wanders away to focus on the cat or that they really want some ice cream. Ennis’ film similarly allows itself to get derailed from time to time. Granted, it’s a big subject, but a little more focus might have gone a long way.

For example, “Pay 2 Play” is very good in looking at recent Ohio politics, particularly the attempts by two outsider Democratic candidates to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Jean Schmidt, a longtime bane of liberal activists. Paul Hackett was a handsome Iraq War vet who spoke out against the war when he ran in 2006, Surya Yalamanchili was an underdog Democrat in 2010 who first had to survive a primary with an establishment Democrat, David Krikorian, who made fun of his name.

Ennis was on the ground with Yalamanchili during his campaign, and the “War Room”-type footage of the charismatic and driven former “Apprentice” candidate taking on the system — both outside and inside his own party — are the best part of “Pay 2 Play.” Yalamanchili soon learns that even for the modest, issues-driven campaign he plans to run, he has to spend three out of four hours of his time fundraising — and that’s without taking any special-interest money, which effectively ties one hand and three fingers of the other hand behind his back.

From there, “Pay 2 Play” uses snazzy graphics and portentous voiceovers (at times, Ennis’ narration sounds just like that of a “Daily Show” correspondent) to cover everything for ALEC to Citizens United. There’s also an unexpected detour into the world of political street art, which seemed odd at first. But I actually find their guerrilla exploits pretty interesting, their spray-painted messages against corporate and political corruption serving as kind of a counterweight to well-financed political advertising.

“Pay 2 Play” is earnest, perhaps to a fault, and while it provides a good overview of the state of play in American politics, it doesn’t go very deep into any one area. It seems like it’s more likely to inspire someone into a career in street art than to run for office.

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