Surviving Eden, the third feature from writer-director Greg Pritikin, breaks at least three cardinal rules of effective filmmaking. So if not a gift to audiences, it is an unintentional trove of how-not-to tips for aspiring filmmakers.
The film is a comedy that isn't funny. It features a main character impossible to care a hairpin about or believe. And while hyping itself as a mockumentary, it all too often sets sail from its doc moorings (propelled by Pritikin's original score) into the narrative genre.
But perhaps the film's most egregious failing is that it doesn't offer a frame of any kind of truth (comedic, dramatic, emotional) that could command attention. Christopher Guest (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Mighty Wind) excels at the mockumentary genre mainly because his make-believe "real" characters take us on a sympathetic emotional ride to places--a dog show, community theatre, a reunion of has-been folk artists--that ring with truths.
For Surviving Eden, Pritikin gives us Dennis (Michael Panes), a 300-pound-plus convenience store clerk with a pet pig and dwarf roommate, Sterno (Peter Dinklage). Sterno, for reasons unknown, secretly submits Dennis' name for consideration as a contestant on the eponymous reality show. For reasons unknown, Dennis is selected.
The show has contestants battling the wilderness (the "surviving" part) in the buff (the "Eden" part). For more reasons unknown, Dennis wins and becomes a celebrity. Not that he's now handsome, but he does emerge from the show much lighter, perhaps because (reasons surmised), food was lousy in the wilderness.
The show's executive producers, Maude (Jane Lynch, so funny in The 40 Year Old Virgin) and Gary (Sam Robards) are a terribly dysfunctional married couple. Maude is a cokehead who is so sexually frustrated, she makes an aggressive play for Dennis; Gary, for whom reality is only on TV, is in denial.
Celebrity changes Dennis: An obvious no-talent, he lands an agent (Gary Rosen) and inspires fan clubs. Formerly too nerdy for romance, he falls for Sister Agnes (Savannah Haske), a very liberal-thinking nun and fellow "Eden" contestant who is actually drawn to Dennis. But the budding relationship is seriously compromised by Marie (Cheri Oteri), a very tacky and unethical trickster who, eager for a piece of Dennis' million-dollar winnings, gets her femme fatale claws into the rich sucker. On a downward spiral, Dennis becomes addicted to partying and coke (the white powder kind), blows his new fortune on expensive Hollywood hotel suites, and ends up in a downtown L.A. dump.
Pritikin serves up a happy ending because, in spite of so much silliness, he betrays allegiances to things like love, friendship and old-fashioned upbeat Hollywood movies. It's obvious that Pritikin wants to please. Now he has to learn how.
In the meantime, let's hope filmgoers will soon get a chance to see the deliciously subversive and clever mockumentary American Cannibal, a still-unreleased send-up of reality TV as only the insanely ambitious could imagine it.