20 Dates (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

20 Dates purports to be a documentary - a real life romantic comedy about how an aspiring film maker set out to chronicle the role of dating in modern American culture and wound up discovering true love. However, like Michael Moore, whose behind-the-scenes tinkering with the reality of Roger and Me was well documented, director Myles Berkowitz doesn't have qualms about staging scenes to boost the drama of his project. The problem with that approach is that it calls into question the "truth" of all of Berkowitz's footage. Consequently, despite Berkowitz's protestations to the contrary, 20 Dates has to be seen as a semi-fictional account.

In recent years, the pseudo-documentary has become a popular genre. These films, which look, feel, and sound like documentaries, are actually nothing of the sort. In some cases, like This is Spinal Tap and Forgotten Silver, they're cleverly designed satires. In others, like Dadetown, they make important statements about social conditions. But there's never an attempt to pretend that they are something that they're not, which is exactly what 20 Dates does. Berkowitz wants viewers to believe that everything in his film is real and spontaneous. Even the most naïve viewer would be hard-pressed to accept that explanation. While I'm sure that some of the material presented here is genuine, too much of it has a planned, scripted feel. Another tip-off: Berkowitz is credited as the "writer and director." Legitimate documentaries do not admit to having writers.

Actually, all of this doesn't mean much because, even if Berkowitz acknowledged the film to be a pseudo-documentary, it wouldn't alter the movie's entertainment value. 20 Dates is basically an inconsequential romantic comedy about a self-centered, arrogant jerk who ends up falling for (and being fallen for by) a sweet, gorgeous woman. The moral is that no matter how cynical you are about life and love, and no matter how deeply you believe that it can't happen to you, it can. Berkowitz has deluded himself into believing that this is an original message, when, in fact, it's the basis of three-quarters of every romance ever committed to film.

The premise is that Berkowitz, embarking on his first movie with the help of $60,000 from controlling producer Elie Samaha, has decided to film himself going out on 20 dates. His goal isn't clear beyond "combining my two biggest failures: my personal life and my professional life", but he hopes something interesting will develop. Along the way, he hooks up with author and teacher Robert McKee, who offers some jaded views about love in the '90s. Then he shows some scenes from When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, and other romantic movies. Berkowitz's first few dates are interesting and amusing affairs. In one, the woman is unable to relax because of the presence of the cinematographer. After that, Berkowitz decides to use the "candid camera" approach, and this results in lawsuits from women who claim their privacy has been invaded. Eventually, Berkowitz meets Elisabeth, and true love blossoms. But she becomes jealous when he continues to go out with other women to complete his film, and he is forced to choose between his movie and her.

There are things in 20 Dates that work, but the romance between Berkowitz and Elisabeth, despite being the centerpiece, isn't one of them (although I did like the handholding scene). The filmmaker's frequent spats with his profane producer, who expects a non-stop sex-fest and an appearance by Tia Carrera, are often hilarious, and several of Berkowitz's dates have an authentically awkward feel. The sight of him bungee jumping off a bridge is almost worth the price of admission. Then there are his non-stop jabs at French movies and culture, which, while politically incorrect, are nevertheless amusing (and have a surprising relevance in light of the Ira Einhorn scandal).

20 Dates would probably have been more enjoyable if Berkowitz was less irritating. As a character, his only redeeming quality is his self-deprecating humor. At times, he can be funny, but he's also pompous and arrogant. The longer 20 Dates runs, the more it seems like a massive ego trip. By the end, we're wondering what Elisabeth sees in this guy. Berkowitz went to great trouble to stage, edit, and control certain aspects of his film so that it has a formulaic dramatic structure; one wonders why he didn't make the effort to present himself as a likable human being.

20 Dates (United States, 1998)

Director: Myles Berkowitz
Cast: Myles Berkowitz, Elisabeth Wagner, Robert McKee, Richard Arlook
Screenplay: Myles Berkowitz
Cinematography: Adam Biggs
Music: Steve Tyrell, Bob Mann
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:28
U.S. Release Date: 1999-02-05
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1