With the election at last behind us, for better or worse, I’ll hopefully be able to keep up better on the movie review front for the rest of the year. At the moment, tho’, there are two films still in the backlog. First up, Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman’s overrated and exploitative faux-documentary Catfish.
This is a movie that’s hard to talk about without giving away its central hook: Let’s just say it’s the “true” story of a young man (Yaniv Schulman) who meets a girl on the Internet and gets more than he bargained for. If you don’t want to be spoiled any more than that, I’d go ahead and skip the rest of this post. (FWIW, there’s definitely a case to be made for having no information on this one: The two friends I went with had no clue what the film was about going in — Was it a vampire movie? A zombie movie? A human-animal hybrid movie? — and so they found it much more suspenseful than I did.) For everyone else, well, I’ll see you in the next paragraph.
Still here? Ok, well, walking out of Catfish, I had two thoughts about it. First, it was at least kinda interesting to sit through a movie about the client-side of Facebook so soon after seeing the server-side tale told in The Social Network. (If you see one movie about Facebook, tho, see The Social Network. It has its problems, but it’s a far, far better film.) Second, I thought the entirety of this movie can basically be summed up in four words: “Psycho preys on douchebag.” Now, upon further reflection, that’s obviously a very uncharitable way of talking about real, honest-to-goodness people. So let me rephrase it: Catfish is probably better described as: Deeply lonely, possibly schizophrenic Midwestern housewife preys on…douchebag.
Seriously, Yaniv, the self-satisfied, Lower East Side-hipster main character we follow here, feels like he just walked out of Cloverfield. He’s just an annoying, deeply pretentious person, and it’s not much fun to spend time with either he or the two directors, who play a larger role in the story as the film goes on and who are, basically, birds of a feather. But that isn’t even why they deserve the moniker — Ye shall know them by their deeds. These guys are douchebags because they pretty clearly set out to make a movie, and their names, by exploiting that aforementioned sad, sick housewife. Catfish spends most of its run trying to make it seem like Yaniv is the unassuming prey of an Internet fraudster. Wrong. He and the directors are the predators here.
As Catfish plays out, Yaniv first gets an e-mail from a young girl in rural Michigan who’s apparently an art prodigy — She sends him a painting of a photo he took for a magazine. Later, he falls into an online relationship with the girl’s attractive older sister. The two text, they chat on the phone, they eventually cyber But gradually, over the course of months (according to the film), Yaniv figures out that the details don’t add up. The songs he’s sent were recorded by other people, the addresses don’t match what Google Earth has to say. And, when he and the directors finally go out to Michigan to figure out the score, they find that both girls, and their many online friends for that matter, were all the figments of one desperate woman’s imagination.
A potentially intriguing story, I guess, if the protagonist was more likable. Or if, you know, the entire series of tubes was restricted only to Facebook or something. But, as Movieline‘s Kyle Buchanan well put it: “I don’t buy it at all; I think the filmmakers knew from the start what they had on their hands, and they baited a mentally unwell woman for almost a year until their film needed a climax.” That was my sense too — In fact, I found it hard to imagine any other possible conclusion.
Are we really supposed to believe that Yaniv and/or his two directors — who are even making a movie about an online relationship, for Crom’s sake — never took the time to google these Michigan girls at some point? I, and most people I know, google each other before a first date. Also, I would tend to think that child art prodigies, who are ostensibly selling paintings for a few thousand dollars a clip, tend to run up some copy in the local papers. Did Yaniv never think to look them up? Didn’t he want to see what other works of art she might have painted? In fact, why are the cameras even rolling in the first place?
One could argue, I suppose, that Catfish just shows the lengths that people — in small-town Michigan and the heart of New York City alike — will go to feel special and/or see their names in lights. But we have a universe of reality shows on television that already make that point. In the end, Catfish could have just been kinda boring. But sitting through the filmmakers and their star here (not credibly) play the dupes for eighty minutes, and then watching them try to pin down their mercurial, sad, and lonely find on camera for the last twenty or so, the experience went from unnecessary to downright unpleasant. So, congrats on that, I guess.