Posted on 1/04/11 05:14 AM
It's AMERICAN TEEN all over again. I don't have that much of a problem if a documentary's authenticity is highly doubtful - sure, it goes against the very definition of the genre, but if the filmmakers can do something interesting with it, even if (in the case of a documentary) it looks like there was a bit of manipulation going on, then that's perfectly fine. What I DO have a problem with is if, aside from the documentary being an obvious hoax, the material it presents has already been treated and examined much better in other films (documentaries or not). It happened in 2008 with AMERICAN TEEN, and the makers of CATFISH have followed suit.
AMERICAN TEEN was a supposed "documentary" about high school kids and the drama they experience with their friends, families, their efforts to apply to college, etc. That's all fine and well, except that 1) many of the scenes were obviously staged and scripted, and more importantly, 2) we've seen all the cliches of high school dramas plenty of times in movies, TV shows and other documentaries. If AMERICAN TEEN had given us some insight on teenage angst, despite not being a "real" documentary, I would've easily recommended it, but alas, I couldn't do it. The same happens with CATFISH. It's a story about a guy who develops a long-distance relationship through the phone and Internet chatting with a girl who, from the pictures, looks gorgeous and right about his age.
The manipulation quickly becomes evident as the filmmakers are able to "capture" all the facebook updates and chats that the guy has on the computer with the girl, and we even get to hear her on the other line during the phone conversations (more on that later). There's a scene later in the film in which the guy and his friends are at a restaurant and a waitress just randomly starts talking about how people often lie about who they are on the Internet. If we didn't know what was coming by this point, these particular (clearly scripted) lines of dialogue by the waitress should be a clear clue.
The reason why I can't give a lot of credit to CATFISH is that, aside from clearly not being a true documentary, this is essentially plagiarism from stories that have been documented elsewhere, often much more effectively. Two recent films, EASIER WITH PRACTICE and TALHOTBLOND (the last of which is actually a documentary that is much better than CATFISH, and I have no doubt of its authenticity) have treated the exact same subject. CATFISH has just taken the story portrayed in those two films and pretended to make a "real" story of its own.
As you'll have predicted, the supposed hottie doesn't turn out to be who she was claiming to be. The worst part about this supposed revelation is actually the fact that you can't LEGALLY record a telephone conversation without the other person's consent (let alone for a documentary). So, apparently, even though the person on the phone was a "fake", he/she gave their consent to the filmmakers to record the conversations in which he/she was pretending to be someone else. Right on.
Sure, just like AMERICAN TEEN, the film is still entertaining. AMERICAN TEEN was enjoyable in the way you would enjoy an episode of a contrived high school sitcom, while CATFISH is enjoyable in the way you would enjoy an episode of "48 Hours Investigation" in which you're being told a true story, but you get occasional scenes in which some actors "dramatize" what happened. As much as we can predict what's gonna happen at the end of CATFISH, it's still somewhat interesting to see it pan out. But that alone isn't enough to make for a good film; I think moviegoers have a right to expect something of higher caliber than a "48 Hours Investigation" episode.
To make matters worse, the final act of CATFISH is thoroughly cringe-inducing. There's a scene in which the culprit apologizes for the deception, and well, considering that we've accepted that CATFISH is totally fictional, I'll admit that the person does give a good performance as he/she breaks down at the end. But during that scene, it's hard not to think about how obvious it is that the lines this person is delivering were clearly written out. To put it simply, this isn't how people talk in real life. But the film has even worse problems in its final act. There's an obviously tacked-on, incredibly forced scene in which a character delivers an out-of-the-blue monologue in which we're supposed to get the connection of the film's title to the overall story. Needless to say, this falls flat on its face, lacks any authenticity and feels insulting more than anything else. Even worse, the film contradicts itself in its coda, first going to great lengths to humanize its "villain," yet making a total u-turn in the obligatory captions that come up before the credits. If you're going to "make up" a story and try to sell it as real, at least look up the definition of "catharsis" and do some research on how to tie up a story's loose ends.
Because the interactions between the long-distance lovebirds happen mostly through Facebook, CATFISH could've actually served as a great companion piece to this year's magnificently timely THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Alas, despite not being an actual documentary featuring the real Mark Zuckerberg, THE SOCIAL NETWORK is a million times more effective and carries much more honesty than the hoax that is CATFISH could ever offer us. Just like AMERICAN TEEN, the film offers an entertaining story, but it's one we've heard dozens of times already, and to make matters worse, it insults the audience by trying to trick them into believing it's real. It's time for filmmakers out there to realize that we're smarter than that.