There are two kinds of documentaries: some have a fascinating subject that deserves a movie, and others aren't interesting enough to warrant ninety minutes of screen time. (I put "March of the Penguins" in the first group, "The Aristocrats" in the second.) Apparently, there's now a third category: the documentary about a subject that's contrived for the sake of the film. "Reel Paradise" marks the arrival of the reality TV aesthetic at the movies.
Directed by Steve James ("Hoop Dreams"), "Reel Paradise" asks what happens when you take a wealthy American family and transplant them to a remote Fiji Island for one year to run a free movie theater. The answer is: just what you'd expect. Dad (producer John Pierson) deals with drunk projectionists, bullies the locals and gets dengue fever, Mom doesn't seem to care as long as she can get online, the teenage daughter collects love letters and hickeys from young Fijians, and the defiant son gets into trouble at school and relentlessly attacks his father's choice of movies. Then, they go home. "Reel Paradise" takes two hours to tell us all this.
To be fair, there are interesting moments: John Pierson clearly thrives on hectoring the natives and lecturing about movies, and he reveals an uncomfortably aggressive side when his house is robbed. (Surely, it would have been easy for him to simply write off the laptop and order a new one instead of nearly starting a blood feud?) The best shots in "Reel Paradise," when the camera pans over the delighted faces of the capacity crowd at the 180 Meridian Cinema, bring to mind Preston Sturges' "Sullivan's Travels" with its immortal last lines: "There's a lot to be said for making people laugh. Did you know that's all some people have? It isn't much ... but it's better than nothing in this cockeyed caravan."
Unfortunately, Pierson, who backed early movies by Spike Lee and Michael Moore and wrote a book on independent film, selected an alarming range of terrible movies to show for free, including duds like "The Core," "Maid in Manhattan," "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," and "Die Another Day." Obviously, Fijian kids won't get too excited about the latest Wong Kar Wai or Lars Von Trier, but could Pierson, a man who got married at New York's Film Forum, really not find better entertainment than "Enough" and "XXX?"
In a particularly telling episode, Pierson attacks the Catholic Church for promoting Western values in a culture that functioned very well without them--but he isn't willing to address how his own project might affect the Fijians. Showing "Jackass" to third world children is almost certainly irresponsible. But Pierson seems entirely unconcerned with his impact on Taveuni. Compared to the dark visions of a documentary like "Darwin's Nightmare," his carefree cinematic globalization appears downright frivolous.
And that, finally, is the problem with "Reel Paradise:" it's not a film about a man with the burning desire to show great movies to people who otherwise wouldn't have a chance to see them. The Fijians are merely a pretext for "independent film maven" John Pierson, the pretext for making this movie. When their year in Fiji is up, the Piersons leave and take the keys to the 180 Meridian Cinema with them. If "free movies" were really the point of this, couldn't they have found a way to keep the theater open, perhaps by diverting a percentage of the proceeds of "Reel Paradise" to the project?
"Reel Paradise" isn't really a documentary, it's "reality cinema" in which an American family gets to explore an exotic tropical island for a while, and talks to the camera about "how seductive" it all is even though "nothing works." When their film is in the can, they pack up their toys and leave. Pierson's project could have been a courageous cineaste's experiment in generosity, but it's nothing more than a selfish exercise. I wouldn't complain if this kind of reality entertainment stayed on TVfor free.