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They Shoot Movies, Don't They?

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 03/02/06 15:47:04

"Not the perfect hoax, but better than most."
3 stars (Just Average)

There are few things in filmmaking as tricky as pulling off a convincing mockumentary. Sure, many of them can be entertaining - just ask any Christopher Guest fan - but convincing? As in “people will actually believe this to be the genuine article?” That’s a whole other matter. In my lifetime, I have seen only one, maybe two, mocks that could actually be passed off as legitimate documentaries.

Now comes “They Shoot Movies, Don’t They? …the making of Mirage,” a mock which is not entirely convincing, but it comes very close at times, so much so that it deserves a mention as getting it right more than most other attempts. The film stirred up a little brouhaha a few years back when its run on the Independent Film Channel led many viewers to debate its authenticity (both the filmmakers and IFC were devilishly reluctant to reveal the truth). I remember the title being discussed but never got around to catching it; its overdue DVD release now allows folks like myself to play catch up.

What’s most commendable about “They Shoot Movies” is that not once do the filmmakers show their hand. They stick with the fib from start to finish, going so far as to cast actual Hollywoodites (Hollywoodians?) as themselves, just so the credits can avoid saying that so-and-so played the guy who was supposed to be real. Everyone is themselves here, blurring the line between fact and fiction. Except, that is, for the gentleman playing the central character, although the movie makes finding his real name to be a chore.

But the reason it’s worth the time to discover that “Tom Paulson” is in fact Tom Paul Wilson is not to blow the lid off some major secret, but to pass along worthy praise for an excellent performance. It is Wilson’s stammering, searching-for-a-word delivery that makes his dialogue sound completely authentic - every time he talks, he sounds like he’s saying these words for the first time, like he’s having an honest conversation with you and me. Other cast members do this quite well, too (there’s a nice monologue midway through the piece that sounds eerily real), but it’s Wilson’s spot-on performance that sells this as a could-be-real work.

(That said, there are others that come off as too staged and phony, thus completely destroying the movie’s ability to convince. We get frequent interviews with a greasy, chain-smoking Hollywood producer who not once becomes believable; considering how little he contributes to the actual storyline, his role should have been cut completely.)

Only in the film’s final few minutes do the filmmakers stretch a bit too far, with a few plot points that dare to blow the whole hoax. Namely, there are too many acts of convenience that must be overlooked, and the leading character’s personal journey leads him to parallel, note for note, the story of the movie he’s trying to make. This should be a dead giveaway, really, as it doesn’t quite work as an effective story element, let alone as cold reality. But then the filmmakers pull back, find their footing, and wrap things up quite successfully.

Of course, none of this would matter if the story itself wasn’t worth two bits. Replace all the gimmicky faux-documentary stuff with straightforward fictional storytelling, and you still wind up with a pretty decent story. The plot involves a struggling filmmaker who, after completing shooting on his first project (titled “Mirage,” ha ha), a highly personal independent drama, finds himself short of the funds needed to finish editing and get the picture distributed. He cuts a deal with a slick money man in town: if he can come up with $40,000 by the end of the month, the investor will come up with another $40,000, and the movie can get made. We then follow the filmmaker as he spirals from frustration to desperation, with potential investors wanting to rework his story, with others ignoring him completely, with his personal life falling apart, and, finally, with the ugly embarrassment of having to hit up friends and family for cash. (In a nice move, he even solicits the documentarians themselves, one of many curious jabs at the nature of documentary filmmaking.)

This is not a pretty picture of Hollywood at all, and this, not the hook of the hoax, is why we keep watching. This is the story of a man who puts everything he has into a dream, only to slowly discover that perhaps his dream just isn’t any good. “They Shoot Movies” goes a bit too much out of its way to underline this point - the filmmaker’s project is the story of a man fighting against failure - and yet for all the images of Hollywood as a dream factory, or, at least, as an absurd playground for big time stars and dopey producers, it’s refreshing to see a story come clean and reveal just how nasty, painful, and soul-crushing the town can become. I’d say it’s safe to assume that the makers of this film lived this firsthand, and the tales of young artists hoping against hope that they can keep their dreams alive before cynicism sets in forever are undoubtedly inspired by fact.

So yes, let the gimmick of the mockumentary bring you in. You won’t be completely sold, but if you’re willing to forget the attention-grabbing set-up, you’ll find yourself intrigued by a honestly involving personal journey. That, not the almost-successful go at believability, is the real reason this film works.

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