Last year, when I wrote about Straightlaced: How Gender’s Got Us All Tied Up, I suggested that it was some sort of miracle that a movie directed with such condescension and pandering was still engaging and entertaining. When one of the most dominant elements of production is off-putting, it’s unlikely that a viewer will be able to even finish a movie, let alone enjoy it.
So does the fact that Nev Schulman, the “hero” of the is-it-real documentary Catfish, comes off like a smug, sneering, cruel, elitist, club kid mean that the movie is unwatchable? No, it doesn’t because despite all of these problems, which include how insufferable Nev’s brother (and co-director of the film along with the beach-bum-version of Val Kilmer-looking Henry Joost) Ariel is, the subject matter is more interesting than the approach.
The ads for Catfish tell you not to read anything about the film so as not to spoil the surprises, but the surprise might be just how inconsequential the film is. Essentially, it’s about being potentially duplicitous on Facebook and whether or not honesty over the internet is more than a social requirement and responsibility. Does it really matter if you inflate who you are? When does delusion become irrelevant?
Nev (who has mannerisms like Cameron Frye from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but is a visual dead ringer for Jonathon Schaech) begins a phone-dating relationship with the sister of a young girl who has, unbeknownst to him, painted some of his published photographs and sent them to him in NY from a small town in Michigan. It’s right here, in the first few minutes that the issue of believability sets in; are we in Joaquin-Phoenix-fakery-land? Why would someone start running the camera simply because you got a package in the mail? What importance would that have unless you knew it would lead somewhere dramatic? And the nagging feeling that what we’re seeing is staged comes up over and over, from the fact that the movie would have us believe that the directors are the laziest researchers in the world and can’t even do a cursory Google search to verify information, to the number of times leading up to the “adventure” and “discovery” of vital plot points that it would absolutely make no sense to have the camera recording.
And just like with I’m Still Here, I think it’s irrelevant whether or not the movie is a hoax, because like the upcoming The Social Network, one of the underlining points the movie seems to be making is how individuals refuse to believe that anyone else could possibly be smarter or more interesting than they are. Nev’s behavior is predicated on his being so unctuous, and it’s of no surprise that his decision making throughout the film is based on the idea that he believes the girl he is “dating” is quite physically attractive. If she’s an average-looking Midwestern girl, there’s no movie. I use the word girl on purpose, because, starting with his letter writing back and forth with the 8 year-old painting prodigy Abby, that the queasy pedophilia issue first rears its head. When Nev is concerned that his soon-to-be-beau Megan might be under 18, he’s relieved when she reassures him. But is it true just because she says it is? Isn’t the whole point that Nev thinks he’s dating a girl with model looks, and more importantly a virgin, that wants him to deflower her?
When Nev and the filmmakers go on a road trip to Michigan, inquiring about local real estate ownership from the real estate agent Irving Krellwitz, justifying their East coast superiority and gawking at the local poverty*, but mostly to surprise Megan, their disappointment with having to deal with Megan’s mother, the rotund and elliptical Angela, is too obvious. Talking to Angela about Abby’s paintings and how correspondence with Nev has inspired Abby (there’s a strong echo of My Kid Could Paint That), is an obstacle that’s in the way of sex with a willing, beautiful, inexperienced partner. It gives the movie’s best scene, where Nev embarrassingly reads out loud his more explicit text messages to Megan, far more pathos, because you realize that Nev isn’t a pro at this either. Megan is appealing to Nev not just for the fantasy-girl looks, but because she wouldn’t know any better if he were a terrible sexual partner.
* If there’s anything to make you cringe about Catfish, it’s not the uncomfortable search for the truth, nor the oddly suspenseful sections in the second half of the movie, but the inherent smug tsking that Nev, Ariel, and Henry engage in. Oh these hillbillies and their poor dental hygiene! How could they possibly know anything about the world living in the middle of nowhere, especially compared to me, originating from the mecca of diversity and intelligence known as New York City? To paraphrase Aaron Sorkin’s witty dialogue in The Social Network, “you’re going to go through life thinking that girls/people don’t like you because you’re a nerd/New Yorker/Liberal Jew. And I want you to know that from the bottom of my heart, that’s not true. It’ll be because you’re an asshole.”