The advertising campaign for Catfish is “Don’t let anyone tell you what it is,” which seems like an unfair request when the studio itself advertises the film with a completely and deliberately misleading trailer and ad campaign. The trailer gives you the basic setup: A credulous young man (Nev Schulman) becomes involved in an online relationship with a woman and then—in his credulous way—drops in on her unannounced. According to the way the trailer is cut, this leads to a disconcerting discovery of the thriller kind. Then publicity notes claim the movie is a “reality thriller that is a shocking product of our times.” The release goes on to say, “Catfish is a riveting story of love, deception and grace within a labyrinth of online intrigue.” Even allowing for a little ballyhoo tolerance, this is pretty darn spurious.
Still, I won’t tell you “what it is,” though telling you what it isn’t will probably give you a pretty good idea. That, however, does leave some questions about the authenticity of the whole enterprise (this is I’m Still Here: The Lost Years of Joaquin Phoenix territory) and the ethics of the filmmakers. Those questions are probably more compelling—whether or not they’re answerable—than the movie itself, which at best is in the “interesting” column, except when it’s in the “mildly tedious” one.
Though filmmakers Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, as well as “star” Nev Schulman, insist the film is a real documentary, I’m only about 50 percent sold on this claim. I more or less buy what they uncover when they make their unannounced trip to Ishpeming, Mich. It’s too bad I was neither shocked, nor even very surprised, but that’s a separate issue. I am harder pressed to buy into the credulity of the filmmakers and the wide-eyed naïveté of the main character.
My own take is that they knew what they were doing all along. I’d go so far as to say I suspect that the footage of the documentary being made about Nev was all created after the fact to excuse the proceedings. Let’s face it, apart from the fact that Nev appears to have an entire bearskin stuck on his chest, the only remarkable thing about the guy is that he’s pretty high up on the narcissism scale. That’s a personal reaction. Others find his faux naïveté sweet and charming. I merely find it faux. In either instance, there’s no credible reason—other than this story—for making a documentary about him.
The premise has it that 8-year-old Abby Pierce sends Nev a picture she has painted from a photograph of his that had gotten into newspapers, so he begins an online relationship with the kid, and then with her mother, Angela, and Abby’s older sister, Megan. In fact, he enters into an online—and then telephone—romance with Megan. Only things start to not add up, which will come as a great shock to susceptible 12-year-olds and people who’ve never been on the Internet. Detecting more than a whiff of rodentia prompts the journey in question—and the promised revelations.
Are the revelations worth the trip? Well, they’re at least interesting and offer a degree of payoff. Whether it’s enough of one is a separate question. For me, the answer is a qualified more-or-less. The other question—whether or not the filmmakers are exploiting the people they meet—is trickier, because they pretty obviously are. However, there’s a second question that arises if you stop to consider the actions of those they visit. In other words, who is exploiting whom? The reasons may differ, but the basics aren’t all that different. Perhaps you should simply judge the film for yourself. It’s clearly a movie that’s more intriguing to discuss than to watch. Rated PG-13 for some sexual references.