“No Impact Man: The Documentary” has a spirit behind it that steers it in different directions, which might explain the curious aftertaste it leaves. Even as it follows the admirable mission of a New York family to go green for a year, it finds lots of humor in the challenges involved: Since the experiment involves the family members eliminating their carbon footprint altogether, they aren’t allowed to use electricity, drive a car or even throw away garbage. For people intimidated by all of the steps that go into preventing global warming, this film might make them want to find the nearest exit and run for it.
Others, though, might find its intentions encouraging. For all of the extremes that this family goes to, everyone here does what they can to make the plan work: Colin Beavan, the devoted father and husband, introduces them to a bunch of ways to reduce their impact on the planet, like keeping worms in the kitchen to convert leftover food into compost. Colin even stops buying diapers for his daughter, Isabella, and makes cloth diapers for her instead. Nor does Colin’s obsession with recycling stop there – he finds a way to replace pretty much everything in the Beavan residence that uses energy, from the refrigerator to the washing machine.
At first, Colin’s wife, Michelle Conlin, is not amused by his crusade against the evils of electricity, especially since she’s a reality-TV fan who’s devoted to watching all of her favorite shows. When he gives her the details on what he plans to do, Michelle senses the worst and has the foresight to plan ahead by dropping over $900 for a pair of designer shoes while they still have the cash. Colin does what he can to assuage Michelle’s hang ups, including making organic cosmetics for her to replace the oil-based stuff she usually wears. Although she eventually learns how to stop worrying and love the planet, there’s a cosmic joke here: Most of Colin’s project depends on her income from BusinessWeek, which celebrates the same consumerism that he blames for ruining our environment.
In that light, it’s kind of hard not to be cynical about some of what we see Colin do in this film, especially since he’s also a freelance writer whose detractors (including Penelope Green of The New York Times, who wrote an article about him two years ago) claim he’s in it for the publicity. In spite of all the criticism he deals with, though, you’ve got to admit that what he does isn’t easy. Still, if he can live comfortably without all of the things that most of us see as the bare necessities, then maybe he’s onto something with this whole green thing.