Unreal (2004)

“Is this a reality show?
“Um, kind of.”
— Amy (Jennifer Lorch) and Jake (Michael Giese), deleted scene, Unreal

One dryly amusing component of any and every episode of MTV’s The Real World is the inevitable angst-filled, cliff-hanging argument that precedes the final commercial break. A melodramatic scene ends, then cuts from the bewildered faces of the roommates to a wide shot of the city skyline at dusk as the words “The Real World” appear in the corner of the screen. The Real World is anything but. So, how do you satirize something that is already a parody of itself?

Unreal takes its shot by setting a romantic comedy inside a satire of a reality dating show. What you get is an enjoyable hour and a half that manages to skewer the inane universe of reality dating shows while providing a few dry laughs. The film bills itself as a send-up of The Real World, but it more closely parallels primetime dating competitions like The Bachelor. The story follows three young couples who have recently broken up, and are now cast back into the dating scene. Each is tailed by his or her own documentary film crew while venturing out to shop, work, and party in Manhattan. All their attempts to meet prospective new lovers are being recorded for a new reality show called Unreal.

Things get interesting when Jake and Kate (Amber Ryan) wind up at the same café with their respective camera crews in tow. They’ve never met, and neither knows that the other is part of the same project. Jake asks, “Everyone have their own camera crew now, or — what’s going on?” Is it fate that this is how they meet, or is this development just a little too coincidental to believe? The film is edited well enough to leave the audience suspicious about this chance meeting, but never quite sure how it happens. In case any viewers haven’t already caught on to the point by this time, Jake’s query lets us in on the big joke: in 2005, if you watch enough television, it really does seem like everyone has their own camera crew. Every week, there is a new low-brow reality show on TV designed to feed into our sappy, romantic looky-loo instincts. And every week there is a new crop of Joe and Jane Nobodies being followed around by cameras waiting for them to act like asses.

Kudos to this cast of unknowns, who admirably capture the barely concealed irony of most reality shows: people appear as their “unscripted” selves, but they are acting. It holds true that as long as anyone is aware that he’s being followed by a camera and a microphone, he can’t help turning his “real” life into a performance. The phenomenon becomes more surreal if the camera becomes part of the scene. When Jake hooks up with Randy (Jessica Dill), she stops the camera crew from coming into her bedroom and, not quite sure what etiquette demands in that particular situation, Jake asks, “Should I not keep my mic on, either?”

The best satire is the kind that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Unreal picks apart the ridiculousness of reality programs, delivers some genuinely funny lines, and still avoids beating us over the head with the message, that dating shows are exercises designed to titillate their audiences without giving them any real sex or real drama — the smut that is presumably the reason why viewers tune in at all.

For the commentary track, director Sloan Copeland says he wanted to capture some of the elements of the reality dating show culture from programs that appear nightly on basic cable, such as Elimidate and The Third Wheel. He also compared some of his man-on-the-street interview sequences to When Harry Met Sally. His assessment is close, but it would be more “real” to say that Unreal is a cross between the pacing and audience point of view of The Real Cancun and the Upper East Side sensibility of Two Ninas.

Copeland’s script also touches on some of the truisms of the urban dating scene. Jake, a good-looking-but-not-too-good-looking guy, talks to his camera as he’s preparing for a date, analyzing the necessity of dressing to look like he doesn’t really care how he looks, but somehow winds up accidentally fashionable at the same time. Ryan, blending a poor man’s Mandy Moore with a bit of Emmanuelle Chriqui and January Jones thrown in, does a great take on the archetypal impressionable young single woman: “The thing is, is like, we’ll set plans and, he doesn’t… follow through. And I don’t know if that’s ’cause he’s like, a flake, or if uh… he’s got other things going on, or if he’s just not interested.”

On the disappointing side is that after a few interesting and unpredictable twists and turns, the story comes to a somewhat safe and predictable ending, much the same as a real reality show. None of the characters ends up any better or worse off than they were to start. Maybe that’s the point. At a minimum, Unreal provides decent entertainment and a clever spoof at the same time, inviting the audience to absorb whatever it wants — humorous dialogue, a few nice romantic moments, or sarcastic bites about the confounding ubiquity of the reality dating TV genre. Copeland’s commentary includes a mention that he made Unreal for less than five thousand dollars. If that’s the case, then Jake is right when he tells Kate after their movie date, “I think they did a good job, like, for such a low budget flick, you know?”