The Real Cancún (2003) – PopMatters Film Review )


Early in The Real Cancún, there’s a wet t-shirt contest that serves as a metaphor for the entire film. It was previously my understanding that a wet t-shirt contest is sort of like a real-life soft porn feature, where (usually female) contestants are sprayed with water until their shirts are see-through, and eventually, if the drunken audience is lucky, they’ll dispense with their tops altogether. It’s a thin pretense of some kind of event that leads to nudity, but a pretense nonetheless. During The Real Cancún‘s wet T-shirt contest, it’s about 10 seconds before the first contestant has lifted up her shirt, which seems sort of like a porn movie starting with the pizza boy and the housewife mid-coitus. This may seem a minor question, because you know the clothes will come off eventually, but where’s the sleazy anticipation? The Real Cancún is like that throughout, skipping right to the point, leaving itself nowhere else to go.

In the first feature from the creators of MTV’s The Real World, 16 college-age subjects (several of them are not actual students) are chosen to, well, go on Spring Break. The footage was shot this past March, and hastily edited for New Line’s quick release (Universal has a rival Spring Break documentary slated for release later this summer). There has been much talk of whether this will usher in a new trend of “reality” movies as uncensored companions to their network TV counterparts, but the initial box office results for Cancún are dismal: it opened at number 10, earning just $2.3 million. This isn’t surprising; the demographic that loves reality TV and Spring Break but doesn’t have access to Girls Gone Wild videotapes is probably small (or can’t get into R-rated movies without a parent). It can’t help that the movie itself is so slapdash and uneventful.

This isn’t to say that The Real Cancún couldn’t have been entertaining. But Real World producers Mary-Ellis Bunim and Jonathan Murray (and their team, including director Rick de Oliveira) have failed to do what usually provokes (often unfair) criticism of other documentaries: They have imposed no clear point of view on their material. Actually, they’ve imposed a sort of airheaded faux-objectivity, the equivalent of giving an insincere hug and saying, “It’s all good!” Everyone on camera is treated, more or less, with a mindless amiability. There are a few laughs at the expense of some of the more enthusiastically foolish men (like the guy who repeatedly asks if anyone wants to make out), but for the most part, the film is weirdly free of irony.

Maybe Ellis and Bunim would argue that they’re simply showing the unembellished truth about Spring Break without moralizing, but they shy away from a lot of juicy details: there’s no throwing up, hangovers, or drunken brawls. It’s like a reality show where no one wanted to be the buzzkill. The best reality programs are quick to position heroes, villains, triangles, and controversies; this is the core of The Real World‘s success, as cohabitating “strangers” get crushes, form rivalries, and so on. Nothing is at stake in The Real Cancún (nothing is at stake in The Real World, either, but the directors and editors hide it well). The film might have benefited from some awkward forced bonding activities before the partying begins in earnest. Why not devote the first half of the movie to a Real World-ish cohabitation scenario, and save the trip to Cancún for the second half? As is, the audience can’t even pretend to know the characters.

The closest thing Cancún has to a story arc is the journey of Alan, who goes from generically awkward non-drinker to somewhat less awkward hard-drinking party animal. Many reviews have singled out Alan as one of the only “likable” characters; I preferred Jorell, whose heart-to-hearts with Alan are genuine and whose wisecracks are generally amusing, and cute non-couple Dave and Heidi (who, the movie barely bothers telling us, doesn’t drink). But the three of them have all but vanished by the second half of the movie, suggesting they may strayed from the binge-drinking/cheap-sex agenda.

Indeed, the biggest laugh in The Real Cancún has nothing to do with the drinking, sex or nudity, but an unexpected encounter with a jellyfish during a bungee jump. Judging from the editing in this sequence, it was very possibly staged and/or fabricated, but it’s amusing nonetheless, and it made me wonder if the filmmakers simply didn’t come up with too much interesting footage last March. Whatever the cause, much of The Real Cancún has a numbing effect, like we’re attending a lame party. It’s a dispiriting reminder of how boring reality can be.