SPOILER ALERT: Whether Catfishis real or a stunt, it's not very fun.

By Sean Burns
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Sep. 21, 2010

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On the Road: Nev Schulman (left) filmed his own quest through the strangeness of social interaction over the internet, particularly with the mysterious Megan and her family


Is it live, or is it Memorex?

So asked a Don Draper-worthy ad campaign in the 1980s, one that remains stuck in the heads us old farts who grew up with cassette tapes and other antiquated technologies. The slogan was a play on authenticity. But alas, after the dawn of reality television and the increasingly slippery slope of documentary-filmmaking ethics, the problem with the 21st century is that we’re always wondering if what we’re watching is, in fact, real. Or is it just Memorex?

Nanette Burstein’s 2008 Sundance smash (and subsequent box-office bomb) American Teen was so transparently scripted and brazenly manipulated, it made Jersey Shore look like The Sorrow and the Pity. And just recently, Joaquin Phoenix filmed himself having a hilariously fake nervous breakdown. Even Michael Moore might ask where the line is these days.

So what to make of Catfish? Yet another Sundance sensation that purports to be a stranger-than-fiction true story, the movie doesn’t ever quite feel like it’s playing on the level. Produced by Hollywood’s most unremarkable lackey, Brett Ratner, could this all be some sort of Borat-style performance piece?

And if it is, why isn’t it more interesting?

I must tread lightly here to avoid spoilers. A deeply average and annoyingly over-emotive young man named Nev Schulman works as a freelance photographer in New York City. One day, he’s contacted by 8-year-old Abby Pierce, an art prodigy living in Michigan who enjoys painting portraits of his photos.

Faster than you can say My Kid Could Paint That (calling to mind Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary from a couple years back), Nev becomes a mentor to Abby, then finds himself smitten with her entire family via Facebook. We’re supposed to buy that Nev falls head over heels for Abby’s 19-year-old virginal half-sister, Megan, sight unseen. They talk all the time on Gchat and Facebook, but for only brief moments on the actual telephone. Nev never speaks to Abby at all.

Megan claims to have written a song about her beloved Nev, but a brief jaunt around the Internet tells him this tune has been around for years, and is in fact on the One Tree Hill soundtrack. You might wonder why he never bothers to Google Abby, the young art genius, who at 8 years of age purportedly has her own gallery and a roster of wealthy patrons. But, oddly, net-savvy Nev never looks into any of this.

And then comes the twist I’m not supposed to reveal.

Most of Catfish feels fake, as if Schulman and his co-conspirators stumbled into a weird story and retroactively overcompensated by shooting bogus footage to make themselves look like suckers for the first hour. It’s impossible to imagine these sly twenty-something guys, glued to their iPhones with digital cameras at the ready, being taken in by such a grand, easily disprovable hoax.

Of course they weren’t. Nev’s sexting with Megan is the most revealing cop-out I’ve ever seen. He can’t commit to the moment, knowing the deal from the start, and spends most of his time trying to cover his own ass and still seem appealing on camera.

So what are we left with? The final 40 minutes of Catfish are indeed deeply sad, and the film becomes improbably moving in spite of its smarmy protagonist. Turns out there’s a devastating, fascinating story here, with deep reservoirs of heartbreak that remain untroubled by the central figure’s jerky nonchalance.

Prankster street artist Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop still ranks as the best so-called documentary I’ve seen in some time, and there’s been way too much ink spilled trying to figure out whether that movie is the real deal. But whether it’s a hoax or not is immaterial, as the movie’s barbed message comes through loud and clear regardless. In fact, I think that the film works better if he faked it.

Catfish has no such subversive point of view, though. This isn’t live. This is Memorex.

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