Catfish (United States, 2010)

September 22, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Catfish Poster

Warning: This review contains spoilers throughout - at least insofar as a documentary can be spoiled.

There's a common belief that about 75% of the "hot women" engaged in e-mail relationships, chatroom liaisons, and other associated on-line behavior are actually pot-bellied, middle-aged men. Although the percentage may be in error, the impression is not. The relative anonymity of the Internet allows people to reinvent themselves. Some merely "tweak" their personalities, using flattering (but genuine) photographs and glossing over embarrassing or undesirable traits. Others use the more radical approach of creating a fictional persona. It's a live version of Sim City. Thus, an overweight, 40-year old housewife can pretend to be a vivacious 19-year old with little fear of the truth being discovered - unless she happens to make the mistake of developing an on-line relationship with an aspiring documentary filmmaker.

If there's one thing we should all know, it's not to accept anything on-line as being real without a dose of fact-checking. Outrageous claims like the Nigerian scam are easily debunked but it's harder to uncover truths about individual's identities, especially if they are not public figures. For most people, the desire to construct a secondary self is not an act of malice; it's one of realizing a fantasy. Most Internet relationships stay on-line and, in that environment, it matters little who the participants truly are. Many of us recognize that, if we were to one day meet an electronic friend or lover, we would likely be disappointed but, in a world where physical interaction of any meaningful sort is uncommon, fantasy trumps reality.

Which brings us to Catfish, a case of a documentarian's serendipity (if, in fact, luck has anything to do with it). The movie starts out as one thing - a subject that would likely not be sufficiently interesting for even the most rudimentary distribution - then morphs into a cautionary tale for the electronic age. However, the marketing people at Universal have, in their zeal to hype Catfish, misrepresented it. It is not a thriller. There is no big twist. Those approaching the film with heightened expectations, anticipating seeing something shocking, are likely to be disappointed. Catfish has a story to tell, but it's not the one the distributor is selling. Strange that a movie about how the obfuscation of reality is employing that tactic as part of its publicity campaign. I can't be the only one who sees the irony.

The concept behind the film is for wannabe filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman to chronicle the interaction between Shulman's brother, New York-based photographer Nev, and 8-year old Abby, a painting prodigy based in Michigan. Their contact begins when Abby sends Nev a painting she has done of one of his photographs. They begin communicating by phone and by Internet, although most of Nev's interactions are with Abby's mother, Angela, and her 19-year old sister, Megan. Once a cyber-romance develops between Nev and Megan, the desire to meet in person becomes intense, at least for Nev. But a little detective work uncovers some evidence that points to Megan not being who she claims to be. Determined to find out the truth, and with Henry and Ariel alongside to film everything, Nev decides to pay a surprise visit on his dreamgirl and her family. It turns out that Nev's suspicions are warranted.

I'm going to assume this is closer to a real documentary than a fake one, although, in this age of mockumentaries and associated hoaxes, anything is possible. In the wake of I'm Still Here, it has become increasingly difficult to take movies like this at face value. It wouldn't surprise me to learn that Catfish is like American Teen, which interweaves narrative fiction with reality and includes re-created scenes and partially scripted sequences. Unquestionably, the movie's plot and shape have been sculpted in the editing room. We'll probably never know how much of Catfish is spontaneous and how much is planned. Insofar as Catfish's desire to tell a story and convey a theme is concerned, that doesn't matter. Insofar as maintaining the "purity" of the documentary genre is concerned, it does.

One problem is that none of the characters are interesting and the situation is clich├ęd. Sure, there's a jolt that comes from the excitement of unraveling a mystery in real-time but the end result is a letdown. The film's attitude toward Angela is ambiguous. Schulman and Joost go out of their way to make her sympathetic during a lengthy confession, but they later undercut that attitude by debunking some of her claims in a series of closing captions. The scene in which Angela tells all has a staged feel, as if this was a more polished second-take of something that had previously happened behind closed doors with the cameras off. Nev, who has the most screen time, is a little cool and unformed. Despite the full access he accords to his brother and friend, we never really come to understand how he feels about all this. Where's the sense of anger and betrayal? Where's the heartbreak at the recognition that the girl he was falling for doesn't exist? Angela, who is only around for a handful of scenes, becomes more real than the man who is at the center of the movie.

I guess the bottom line question is whether this material is deserving of 95 minutes of a viewer's time. It's a story that unfolds repeatedly every day in every corner of the world. It's commonplace. As with American Teen, Catfish is more interesting as a dissection of how documentaries are made and what they represent than it is as a feature-length narrative reality show. To me, it seems absurd to ask viewers to pay $10 to see what is effectively a good fit for TV. The distributor can oversell Catfish's merits but, in the end, it's just a tale of passable interest and questionable authenticity.

Catfish (United States, 2010)

Director: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
Cast: Nev Schulman
Cinematography: Henry Joost, Ariel Schulman
U.S. Distributor: Universal Pictures
Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2010-09-17
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1