Let the Fourth Wall Be Unbroken
Not nearly as clever as it wishes it were, and too cloyingly cute in its central conceit to ever truly woo the audience it so desperately craves, The Movie Hero is the sort of logical dead end that rampant cinematic hyper-self-awareness must inevitably find itself mired in. In telling the story of a man so smitten by movies that he now believes himself to be living one, the film wants to comment upon stock filmic tropes by explicitly drawing attention to them via the main character’s continuous fourth wall breaking asides. And yet it also wants to revel in and celebrate these clichés, wants to work as exactly the kind of straight up romantic comedy it lampoons. Basically, it wants to have its cake and eat it too, giving rise to fatal cross purposes which ultimately torpedo what might otherwise have been an agreeable bit of jokey metafilmic fun.
See, here’s an example of how Our Hero, Blake, operates: after various tussles with a supposed sinister character he names the Suspicious Character, and ending him up on the wrong side of the law, Blake finds himself dragged into a therapist’s office to treat his apparently and possibly insane behavior. Of course, he is immediately smitten by his (wait for it) striking, young, sexy and very (wait for it) female therapist, immediately decreeing her his Love Interest. As he sees it in his movie damaged universe where he is screenwriter, director, and star, the very act of type-casting her immediately leads to her inevitably becoming just that stock character, and falling into a swoon over him, just as the naming of the Suspicious Character transforms him into the villain.
Regarding this new Love Interest of the movie of his life, Blake realizes that things can never quite so simple in movies that she would immediately fall in love with him. Indeed, there must be a Doomed Fiancé lurking on the horizon, one who is obviously unworthy of her love, but holding her back from the arms of our worthy Hero. And of course this Doomed Fiancé is a total prick besides because…well, that’s just the way things always are in movies. That the Doomed Fiancé is revealed to be both unworthy and a prick later on in the film is completely unsurprising, because we’ve been primed both by the genre itself, and then again by Blake seemingly calling his generic romantic comedy life into existence, and then calling our attention to the genre conventions directly.
Blake’s belief of his life being a movie, and his attendant eccentric behavior, are born of both awareness and an awareness of that awareness. Cinema-literate and -saturated to the point of delusion, he has become so steeped in the language and rhythm of movies that he almost can no longer help seeing the real world in terms of them. He finds his confirmation and solace in his “Audience”, whom he is always addressing, pleading with, and praising. He knows to his very core that what he wants can only be precisely what his Audience wants, since he is after all the star of the show. And yet he must also cater to the Audience’s demands, or their attention will flag (the film’s only good gag is the camera continuously wandering away from the simpering Blake, especially when a particularly leggy blonde or bikini clad roller skater happens by. The Audience is as easily distracted from his frivolous life as we are).
Confusion immediately arises though, when contemplating the ontological make-up of this “Audience”, and this gets to crux of the problem of The Movie Hero. This Audience Blake is always referencing and addressing seems to exist within the film itself (in fact in its last shot seems to be Blake himself, since he’s in a theater seemingly watching the very movie we just watched. Hey, that was great in the Muppet Movie, but come on!). But he seems also to be addressing the viewer of the actual film The Movie Hero directly (i.e., you, or me, and not the nebulous “Audience” of the film within the film, or the imagined film within the actual film, or…oh, forget it), or at times simply addressing some higher power.
In any event, it’s a strain of Berkeley’s subjective idealism (“To be is to be perceived”) that is totally nugatory and uninspiring, and just stifles any of the good will the film tries to generate. The idea of seeing the world as fantastical and magical—i.e., “just like in the movies”—is of course rife with potential and a common enough theme. It’s just that we like our self-aware movie smitten heroes…well, not quite so self-aware, or at least not so obviously getting off on the imagined voyeurism of an imagined audience. Blake’s (and the film’s) insistence on the authenticity of his by definition fabricated and artificial reality is a cheap parlor trick, and a weak one at that, since we can see how it all unfolds. The joy and wonder of illusion is precisely that it remains one.
But I think I’m seeing a philosophical / aesthetic crisis where there really isn’t one, and imparting too much intelligence and savvy to the director. See, here’s the even bigger problem: On its surface, The Movie Hero is basically harmless, though you can detect perhaps a sniff of something being a bit off as the gratuitous clichés begin to pile on top of each other with reckless abandon, something akin to a continuous wink and nudge in the ribs. Pull back the curtain and take a listen to writer director (and almost star) Brad Gottfried, whose insufferably pretentious commentary track does quite an impressive job of demolishing his own baby.
Though mostly riffing on the sort of uninteresting details of the shoot so typical of commentary tracks, Gottfried does drop his guard at certain key points, revealing an attitude that is an unpleasant mixture of grudging affection and bored contempt. He makes repeated reference to the fact that this script took him a week to write (instead of being a point of pride, this should be a big hint that your script needs work, sir). Rather than seeing in Blake (who is obviously a stand in for the director) a man lost in a sort of Walter Mitty-esque dream world (and further lost within the dream world of Hollywood itself, where he resides), we see a character, and a director, adrift with a profound contempt for both the audience (and the Audience) and the lifeblood of great Hollywood fluff.
It’s one thing to want to be the hero of your own story, the center of the your own universe—but it’s a whole other kettle of fish to a) believe that there is someone or thing always watching you who would rather be doing nothing else and b) that once you’ve gotten their undivided attention, you can basically spit in their face. Gottfried’s commentary (which obviously shows a man who’s lost his grand dreams of making it big in Hollywood to bitter and protracted attrition) is both eulogy and cautionary tale, a glimpse into that unfortunate space where a labor of love curdles into spite.