October 18, 2003

20 Dates, fact or fiction?

I was intrigued by the reviews of 20 Dates when it came out in 1999 but somehow (kid) never (small kid) got around (not even a toddler yet) to seeing it. So I was pleased when it showed up on HBOís rotation and we nabbed it with TiVo. Well, it wasnít quite what I thought it would be, and Iím still processing what I think of it. It was clever, amusing, and not exactly on the level.

The concept in a nutshell: Myles Berkowitz is a recently divorced 30something obnoxious Jewish nebbish of a screenwriter living in LA. Heís likeable in his way, though he does tend to put people on the spot. He sets out to make a documentary following his theoretical search for love: heíll have a small crew film each of twenty dates. Along the way, round about date fifteen, he falls for the woman heís dating and it turns into a sweet romantic comedy, complete with a starry-eyed couple romping in the surf and cuddling in front of the fire. The dilemma then becomes: does he finish his movie, his set of twenty dates and risk his now-girlfriendís growing displeasure, or does he stop and find out if his nasty producer really means all those threats? Thatís right, the movie has the same dramatic arc it would if it were fiction. Iím not altogether sure itís not.

I got on Google and found a few interviews with the filmmaker. He variously called his work a documentary and mockumentary, admitted to tampering with the dramatic process a bit, but mostly by way of putting himself and his camera in situations that caused drama Ė ie: trying to get onto studio lots to film his opening monologue without first getting a drive-on pass. Was he being disingenuous in the interviews or was he for real? The people in his movie all went under their true names, and he had a date set for his marriage to the woman in his movie.

My guess is that it was a bit of both. He saw that the movie wasnít gelling and so he goosed the drama by staging some scenes and exaggerating others. I think itís a documentary in the sense that Survivor, with all its staged challenges, is reality TV. Is this a bad thing? Iím not sure. It makes good watching, but it feels like a cheat. But itís in keeping with some of the dates early in the film, like the one where the woman discovers that a film crew has been filming their date and is hurt and appalled, feeling like sheís been manipulated and made a figure of fun. I felt for Berkowitz in that moment; his desire for a real date was, I think, sincere. But I felt more for this woman who found out that she was on some bizarre 21st century form of Candid Camera. It seems to me that if youíre the kind of person who thinks itís acceptable to film a woman on a first date without her knowledge, youíre also the kind of person who has no moral problems with pulling a fast one on the audience and turning a documentary into a piece of fiction.

It was an entertaining movie and as I watched, I found myself liking the fast-talking, neurotic Myles Berkowitz and being happy for him that heíd found love. But I nevertheless walked away with a sour taste in my mouth. Nobody Ė not a hapless woman on a blind date, not me the viewer sitting on my couch late at night Ė likes being a patsy.

Posted by Tamar at October 18, 2003 11:51 PM