On April 25th, 2003 the pagan gods of cinema faced down a threat much greater than piracy, the Internet and the collective works of the Wayans brothers combined: reality television. Yes, the insidious cultural poison that transformed the medium of Murrow and Cronkite and, to be fair, J. Fred Muggs the morning show chimpanzee and My Mother The Car, into a forum to explore the vague existential angst of Happy Days cast-members trying to reconcile their fuzzy desire for marriage and commitment with their much more concrete wish to fuck random skanks had set its sights on the big screen.
Cultural barbarians were clamoring at the gate, eager to corrupt a venerable cultural institution that gave the world Bergman, Godard and Citizen Kane, not to mention Larry The Cable Guy: Health Inspector and not one but two separate films about the lambada, the notorious "forbidden dance". Our culture stood at a daunting crossroads. In just a few short years the reality plague had completely transformed television. Now it looked primed to do the same to film. The test balloon in question? The Real Cancun, a potentially revolutionary "reality movie" from Bunim-Murray Productions, the demon spawn behind The Real World and The Simple Life.
Being an inveterate pessimist I naturally assumed the movie would be a big hit. From a production and commercial standpoint reality movies boasted myriad advantages over fictional films. They were cheap, could be filmed and edited in a fraction of the time as their fictional counterparts (Cancun was filmed in 10 days, then hit theaters five weeks later), didn't require demanding or expensive stars or batteries of screenwriters and script doctors. Most importantly they featured the most powerful force known to man: boobies! Lots and lots of boobies! Boobies as far as the eyes can see! Who needs Dame Judi Dench when there's an endless supply of tanned and toned strumpets willing to doff their tops for a pair of booty shorts?
Watching commercials for The Real Cancun I was overcome with nausea and dread. I envisioned countless Monday morning A.V Club conference calls where I'd wearily whine "Gosh guys, I reviewed the last three reality fucking movies. Can't somebody else cover Malibu Bikini Party 3?" For me and for cinema the stakes couldn't be higher. Nothing less than the future of movies was at risk.
For the record, there is a huge difference between documentaries and reality movies. It'd probably be a little elitist to argue that documentaries exist on a higher evolutionary plane than reality projects but even the worst documentaries are generally distinguished by at least a modicum of ambition. They want to expose unjust wars or shed light on fascinating people or capture vibrant sub-cultures. Reality shows, on the other hand, are generally content to bask uncritically in the spiritual emptiness and joyless debauchery of has-beens and dim-witted hardbodies unencumbered by excesses of dignity or self-restraint. Even when a reality show displays some level of ambition or social consciousness, like the train wreck that is Black.White the execution is generally muddled enough to negate any noble aims.
The Real Cancun's title says it all: this is exactly like The Real World only at spring break and with way more partying and boobs! Woo hoo! Party! Party!Chug! Chug! Chug! There's similarly a stylistic vocabulary to reality shows that Cancun shares, characterized by lots of flashy, MTV-style editing, relentless appeals to prurient interests and a wall-to-wall soundtrack of familiar songs.
The Real Cancun follows 16 young people who head down to Cancun with only two goals in mind: seeing how much liquor they can consume before succumbing to alcohol poisoning and fucking random skanks like my man Chachi in his prime.
The tight-bodied hedonists here tend to blur together into a hideous writhing mass of drunken flesh but a few souls stand out. There's the gawky horndog who refuses to drink until some really hot trollops pressure him into body shots. Then there's a pair of platonic friends perpetually on the brink of becoming something more and a woman who quips that her favorite position with less generously endowed men is with someone else. Oh snap! In the hormone-crazed world of The Real Cancun, a land of well-developed pectorals and under-developed minds, this passes as the height of wit and sophistication.
Though agonizingly dull, The Real Cancun is not wholly devoid of drama. In a clear bid for Oscar immortality this one dude totally pours a cup of his own piss on a skank after she's stung by a jellyfish. As a rule I steer clear of reality shows. They tend to engender a fierce, visceral loathing for humanity deep within me and I want to fight my impulse towards misanthropy, not cultivate it like a dark, psychic Bonsai tree.
The worst conceivable advertisement for the joys of sexual liberation and easily the worst film I've seen for this project, The Real Cancun is like a Larry Clark movie minus the irony, black humor and striking cinematography. Perhaps the film's most impressive feat is making public nudity, regular lesbian make-out parties and non-stop drinking not only un-fun but soul-crushing. Cancun offers a horrifying glimpse into the kiddie-pool-shallow minds of folks whose greatest ambition in life is to emulate the extras in Mystikal videos. But underneath the partying, drinking and meaningless carousing lies vast oceans of sadness. The Real Cancun unintentionally doubles as a harrowing sociological expose of dim-witted, short-sighted people devoted to leading lives wholly devoid of meaning or substance. It's an ugly hangover disguised as a party.
In a rare display of taste, the American public wholeheartedly rejected The Real Cancun and its cynical, pandering assault on cinema. It turns out people still want movies to mean something, even if it's just two hours in air-conditioned comfort watching giant shape-shifting robots fighting each other. I never felt prouder to be an American than when I learned that The Real Cancun grossed just over two million dollars its opening weekend.
Thank you, Mr. And Mrs. America and all the ships at sea. You saved yourselves and me from an endless deluge of dispiriting reality movies. The resounding, life-affirming commercial failure of The Real Cancun marks perhaps the first time someone actually went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people.
Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success?: Failure