ABC Family rebroadcast Trista and Ryan’s Wedding immediately before airing its original romantic comedy, I Want to Marry Ryan Banks. But the tv movie displays no reverence for the genre that inspired it. Instead, it takes a traditional route, sympathizing with characters who reject show biz in favor of so-called “simple” pleasures.
Fading Hollywood heartthrob Ryan Banks (Jason Priestley) is not one of these characters. He’s used to getting his way, and so, when his playboy ways begin to wear thin with his public, he turns to best friend and manager Todd (Bradley Cooper of Alias) for help. Ever reliable, Todd dreams up I Want to Marry Ryan Banks, a reality show in which 15 women compete to be his bride, in an effort to transform Ryan into everyone’s favorite boy next door.
Unlike Ryan, Todd isn’t “one of those Hollywood types” (this, apparently, despite his concept for the reality game); he only became a manager to help his buddy score chicks. Ryan Banks opens with a flashback to the pair arriving in Hollywood 10 years earlier: a mulleted Ryan poses as an actor to impress women and convinces Todd to pretend to be his agent, a ruse that leads to Ryan’s fame and cements the shape of their friendship: Ryan gets the girls and Todd works behind the scenes. Ryan’s desire for fame is an all-consuming force, overwhelming both boys’ lives. Todd can’t remember ever wanting anything other than Ryan’s success.
As Ryan Banks pokes fun at the transience of U.S. celebrity, it underlines the importance of conventional “values.” All it takes for Ryan to become hugely successful is a big dose of confidence and a hearty heterosexuality. His lack of talent is inconsequential, as he’s a commodity. As such, his reality show is all about appearances and not at all about reality. The show’s executives don’t expect him to stop being a lecherous dog: he openly stares at a contestant’s breasts, sighing, “They’re beautiful,” before being reprimanded, “Look at her face, Ryan.”
In such instances, Ryan Banks offers a glimpse at the behind-the-scenes experience of reality TV, perhaps more intriguing than the shows’ edited “reality.” Ryan’s lascivious first impressions of the contestants (“Ooh, baby, come and sit on daddy’s lap”), serve as supposedly comedic counterpoint to his television-friendly comments (“She’s a wonderful woman” or “She’s not afraid to let you know she’s in charge”). But everything he says is a lie. Ryan and the girls share an understanding that their personal opinions or beliefs must be sacrificed for the “good of the show.” This reality tv program is as orchestrated as any scripted show, and blander than most: “I feel like we really have a connection,” everyone says to everyone else.
Enter Charlie (Buffy‘s Emma Caulfield who previously appeared with Priestley in 90210), a bookstore owner whose sister enters her in the contest against her will. Reality TV isn’t Charlie’s “scene.” We know this because she says, “This is all a little weird” about 65 times. Charlie doesn’t follow the rules. When Ryan tries out the obligatory, “I feel like we have a connection” line, she responds, “Oh yeah? Why?” Even so, the producers have decided she’s “the one,” so they set out to squash her originality and force her into a starring role, despite her misgivings. At the crew’s prompting, she quits jabbering about how “weird” all the cameras are and dutifully intones, “I’m really excited and nervous.” “I’m not buying it, Charlie,” the cameraman scolds.
Disturbingly, despite his immediate affection for her, Todd allows Charlie to be puppeted and even tries to trick her into falling for Ryan. Since Ryan can’t handle “girls like that” (this term is never explained, but it appears to refer to anyone who isn’t ready to sleep with Ryan precisely because he’s a celebrity), Todd employs the ever-reliable Cyrano de Bergerac trick, effectively using his friend’s body to court Charlie, instructing him on what to say and when to brush a stray hair back from her forehead.
I Want to Marry Ryan Banks makes the easy observation that there are two worlds on a reality TV set: the meticulously designed world of the show, and another that exists between takes and behind the camera. Only the latter can sustain a relationship built on such exotic traits as tenderness and intimacy. Though Charlie and Todd’s relationship can’t quite be described as “real” (Todd proposes after no more than five conversations), they properly eschew celebrity for a chance to live as regular people. And the film applauds them for it.