Sunday, April 24, 2005

Watching..., or, Boy Meets Venture Capitalist, Boy Falls In Love With Venture Capitalist, Boy Loses Venture Capitalist's Money.

It's easy to criticize the simple-mindedness of most Hollywood movies (in fact, most popular entertainment in general) because of its over-reliance on defining characters as either heroes or villains. But the reason for that, obviously, is that audiences want someone to root for and/or against. Likewise, the reason stars are stars is because we like them, we really like them, and we want to root for them/their characters.

The people who made this documentary have either forgotten this principle, or forged ahead in the mistaken belief that they it doesn't apply to them. The film focuses on two high school friends trying to start an Internet company, but WHO CARES ABOUT THEM? Neither is particularly interesting or likeable. Kaleil, the outgoing public face of the company, has a certain charisma (maybe because he looks like The Rock's younger, nerdier brother), or at least chutzpah, but his dweebier partner/victim Tom nails it when he points out that he just doesn't trust him. He's a weasel. He's not a bad guy, just arrogant and self-involved. I didn't necessarily want to see him fail, but I didn't sympathize with him either. I just didn't care what happened to him.

So they lost $50 million. Who cares? As The Aviator recently demonstrated, there's nothing inherently interesting about large sums of money, especially when the characters' relationship to it is based on unreality. These guys, especially Kaleil, come off as arrogant, self-absorbed and, for all their wordly jargon and power ties, naive. Their idea seems pretty dumb, too. Not so dumb that we should slap our foreheads and wonder, "How could anybody give these guys that much money for that?," but pretty dumb. Maybe the beauty of it was its simplicity, at least as the venture capitalists saw it. Or maybe it was just a dumb idea. Hey, I didn't lose $50 million gambling on these guys, but then again I don't have $50 million to risk to begin with.

Anyway, the money stuff is just not interesting. The personal stuff could have been. There are glimpses of some seriously roiling emotional seas in several short sequences involving both Kaleil's and Tom's families, but they're never brought to the forefront. On the simplest level: What's up with Tom's daughter? Where's her mom? Does the kid stay with grandma all week? Why? What's up with Kaleil's mom? Is he as much of a mama's boy as he seems during her visit? Who's his daddy? What's the story there? Who cares about their little startup when there's all this Freudian psychodrama going on?

And then there's the hugging and the "I love you, man"s. Kaleil's improbable girlfriend can't take it, but he blows that off and says the real tragedy is what happened between him and Tom. Uh huh. I haven't seen this much multi-cultural homoerotic longing since My Beautiful Laundrette.

Part of the failure here is due to the essential nothingness of Kaleil, Tom and their idea, and part of it is due to the style of the filmmakers. As in The War Room, they're right in there with the camera, and they love their verite verily. But there's no perspective and no shape -- there were about a half dozen points where I thought, "Ah ha, so the movie will be about them dealing with this situation," but each one just kind of vanished. There was no personal expression, and no sense of personalities -- either the directors' or the subjects'. I can't say there's no style, because I believe they've made a conscious decision to work this way. But they observe too much and interact way too little. It's like the whole thing happens behind plexiglass. I mean, everybody's doing "reality" shows now, which are easy to ridicule, but they do tend to get under their subjects' skin and into their heads. Something as simple as an occasional address straight into the camera goes a long way toward establishing the essential humanity of the subject. There's nothing like that here. Kaleil talks to Tom on his cell phone, and you are there! Big whoop. And sure, "The Real World" and its ilk sensationalize the basically ordinary lives of their smug, self-satisfied "stars," but, by God, when you've got two big manly men, one White, one Other, hugging each other and working out together in the gym and saying "I love you" and looking at each other the way Laurence Olivier looked at Tony Curtis in Spartacus, well who cares about the details of their scheme to take over the world, whether it's Wall Street or imperial Rome?

I don't think this kind of story even works as a movie. A TV series (like Project Greenlight or even The Apprentice), a magazine article, a written memoir, even -- hey! -- an Internet site, sure, but a movie needs a short, fairly simple story, a clear dramatic arc, and characters we like or at least care about. Kaleil and Tom's story doesn't have any of that.

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