Note: The writer of this review rented and watched Mainstream digitally from home. Before making the decision to see it—or any other film—in a movie theater, please consider the health risks involved. Here’s an interview on the matter with scientific experts.
While it’s true that YouTube provides a unique opportunity for the naturally annoying to monetize their dubious gifts, satirizing influencer culture is more difficult than one might assume. The quest for viral fame may be basically without limits, but the internet actually operates by an arcane and intricate set of social norms that are almost impossible to keep up with for anyone who’s not, as the phrase goes, “extremely online.” As such, it’s easy for a filmmaker trying to tap into the zeitgeist to come off like a boomer parent grousing about cell phones at the dinner table. Jason Reitman was excoriated for it when he made Men, Women, And Children a few years ago, and a similar fate awaits writer-director Gia Coppola’s embarrassingly overwrought Mainstream.
Though only 94 minutes, the film feels much longer. Its first half hour is an insufferable blend of vacuous and whimsical, as aimless bartender Frankie (Maya Hawke) convinces herself that an unstable street performer named Link (Andrew Garfield) she spots ranting at tourists on Hollywood Boulevard is her ticket to success. She’s right, of course, because that’s the type of movie this is. And so, working with a former coworker and writer named Jake (Nat Wolff), the trio comes up with a concept for an online game show called Your Phone Or Your Dignity? that plays like an episode of The Eric Andre Show, if Andre actually hated his audiences instead of just good-naturedly messing with them. Within this film’s burlesque moral calculus, the show grants overnight celebrity to Link, who adopts the nom de YouTube No One Special and teams up with an amoral agent played by fellow Coppola Jason Schwartzman.
The hollow clonk of that sobriquet is emblematic both of Garfield’s performance and Coppola’s filmmaking: He’s playing Jake Paul by way of Jared Leto’s Joker; she’s turning on a firehose of onscreen animations mimicking both Snapchat filters and the emoji that float across the screen during an Instagram Live session. It’s a lot, in short, and the movie adds even more by half-heartedly pulling its creative trio into a love triangle. And while making Link the Manic Pixie Fuckboy to Frankie’s more grounded character is one of the film’s more interesting angles, the earnest awe on Hawke’s face as Garfield flails around screaming about how we’re all too addicted to our phones to really live, man, is just confounding. Does she take this guy seriously? Should we? (It’s not the most puzzling detail in the film, however—that would be Mainstream’s grudge against makeup, a stance one usually hears coming from embittered teenage boys, not full-grown women like Coppola.)
Audacious, cartoonish satire can work when precisely aimed at a target. Just look at William Klein’s 1969 Mister Freedom, which depicts the U.S. Embassy in Paris as a supermarket. The problem with Mainstream is it isn’t plugged deep enough into the culture it’s satirizing to really even know what its target is, let alone how to hit it. Midway through the film, No One Special is booked to appear on an online talk show whose panel features both Paul and celebrity makeup artist Patrick Starrr as themselves. Johnny Knoxville—who, it should be noted, seems to have a good sense of humor about being cast in stunt roles—is there, too, playing the moderator. Knoxville accuses Garfield of embodying the thing he claims to oppose by railing against the internet on the internet, a charge Garfield answers by pulling a piece of fake poop from his shorts and waving it in the panelists’ faces.
A more incisive film would have something to say about using empty spectacle to comment on empty spectacle. Instead, Mainstream replicates an objectively absurd subculture without really having any perspective on it besides the ploddingly obvious observations that both phones and fame are bad for the soul. One can see what this is supposed to be: a fractured fairy tale, a cutting showbiz satire, a hyper-stylized thrill ride through the narcissistic underbelly of postmodern American life. What we’re actually watching is Macbeth’s “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury.” Remember what that signified?