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I didn’t expect to find thematic bridges between The Incredible Burt Wonderstone - which opened this year’s South By Southwest Film Festival - and Adam Rifkin’s pitch-black satire Reality Show, but the connections do exist and you don’t have to dig too deeply to find them.
Both movies, in their own ways, are about entertainment acts that have grown stale through repetition, and are pushing the envelope in hopes of spicing up their genre and attracting new viewers. With Burt Wonderstone (which I wrote about last night), the dying show belongs to a pair of aged Las Vegas magicians who’ve lost their sparkle. Rifkin, however, goes after the bloated, phony state of “reality” television, eviscerating it with a series of small, believable pushes that are administered to a genre that’s already teetering on the edge of a cliff and ready to plunge to its death.
The writer/director stars in the film as Mickey Wagner, a sleazily entrepreneurial television director who pitches a Truman Show-style reality program following an innocent family chosen at random who don’t ever know that they’re being filmed for air. Cameras are planted around the home of the Warwicks, a bland clan made up of accountant Dennis (Scott Anderson), housewife Katherine (Kelley Menighan Hensely) and honor-roll cheerleader Amy (Monika Tilling). Wagner and his crew sit back to watch the drama unfold. Yet when the network execs demand a sizzle reel of dramatic highlights, Mickey starts interfering with his subjects’ lives in little ways that eventually create big problems.
Reality Show also as a Showtime series that began running last year, but the director wisely understood that his premise is strong enough for multiple incarnations, telling the Alamo Ritz crowd that he cut his footage down to a tight, intense 90-minute effort. I haven’t seen the cable show, but I’ll tell you that the relentless pacing of Rifkin’s theatrical cut helps power through small plot holes that might have tripped up the sharp satire. The downward spirals suffered by the Warwicks are shocking, heartbreaking and, most important, credible. And our crowd was wound tight as the Reality events unfolded, allowing tremendous tension releases in at least three unexpected spots – which I’ll never reveal here because, obviously, the joy of this seedy exercise is finding out how far you’re willing to fall with both Wagner and his “reality” family.
Even though he starts his movie with a Kim Kardashian quote, he doesn’t throw the Warwicks under the bus for wanting to be famous. They never seek the white-hot spotlight of television fame – like too many seem to do these days. Instead, Reality Show explains how close all normal folks are from the brink of complete mental and emotional collapse, and the pursuit of the forbidden – whether in front of or away from the camera – can undo even the most grounded of us all.
And now SXSW rolls on. I’m seated for Danny Boyle’s presentation of scenes from his upcoming Trance, and will shift from that to Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing. So stay tuned!
For more of our SXSW 2013 coverage, click HERE.