Love life's a mess -- and no wonder

Review: Myles Berkowitz takes a camera along on `20 Dates,' but all we can see is his arrogance.

April 02, 1999|By Ann Hornaday | Ann Hornaday,SUN FILM CRITIC

"20 Dates," Myles Berkowitz's self-indulgent, self-serving and ultimately empty documentary about his love life, is the kind of personal filmmaking that gives personal filmmaking a bad name.

You can trace this sort of film back to Ross McElwee, whose 1986 movie, "Sherman's March," became a sleeper hit on the art circuit. Originally planning to make a film about the Civil War, McElwee instead turned his camera on himself -- or rather, the women in his life who had dumped him -- and transformed "Sherman's March" into an unexpectedly funny and engaging meditation on intimacy. McElwee made a good movie, but he also unleashed a monster: Suddenly every amateur with an ounce of ambition considered his private life fascinating grist for the "personal filmmaking" mill. In Berkowitz's case, the offense goes even deeper: "20 Dates" reeks of cynicism, the sort of canny careerism that the filmmaker might have learned at his alma mater, the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania.

Berkowitz is an operator, a sharpie who makes out the angles and plays them for all their worth. The sad thing is that his strategy seems to have paid off: "20 Dates" was a darling at the Slamdance Film Festival last year, and hey, he got picked up by Fox Searchlight! So much for just desserts.

Berkowitz sets out the premise of his movie himself, in a typically grandiose introduction set in front of the Hollywood sign in Los Angeles. A failed actor, he's well on his way to being a failed movie director as well. Not only that, but his love life is a mess. He's divorced, and his dating life is a disaster. Then, he explains his idea: Why not combine "my two biggest failures, my personal life and my professional life"?

Berkowitz sets out to film, in cinema verite style, his search for love. He decides to limit his project to 20 dates. He'll film each of them in an attempt to communicate just how tough it is for arrogant, preening jerks to find intimacy in this cold world.

Berkowitz hires a bumbling camera operator and sound man to follow him on a series of dates, many of which end in tears -- or lawsuits -- when the women find out they're being filmed from behind a potted plant. These encounters are punctuated by Berkowitz visiting his ex-wife ("Hi! I'm pregnant!" she says by way of greeting) and chats with screen-writing guru Robert McKee, who actually comes closest to providing anything resembling insight in this rambling exercise in rank narcissism.

To his credit, Berkowitz makes good use of vintage film clips (he wants us to understand that love really isn't the way it's portrayed in the movies; thanks, Myles) and doodling directly on the film stock to heighten particular moments. But he blows that credit with some very bad faith, never disclosing which sequences are staged. For instance, a running gag involves Myles' producer, a sleazy guy named Elie Samaha who hectors Myles to cast Tia Carrere in the movie. Berkowitz finally does manage to get Carrere on film but never mentions that she happens to be none other than Mrs. Elie Samaha. In other words, "20 Dates" is heavy on cinema (if you consider nausea-inducing camera work cinema) and light on verite. Blame Ross McElwee for spawning the likes of Myles Berkowitz, but blame only yourself if you're taken in by Berkowitz's particular brand of con artistry.

`20 Dates'

Directed by Myles Berkowitz

Released by Fox Searchlight Pictures

Rated R (pervasive language and brief sexual images)

Running time: 88 minutes

Sun score: *

Pub Date: 4/02/99

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