There used to be two “Catfish” groups: those who had never heard of the 2010 movie, or the MTV show it inspired; and those hip to the whole thing. And now, there’s people getting up to speed since the Manti Te’o catfish caper. This review will assume little to no prior knowledge of the movie or even the term, “catfish,” although we’ve already reached the tipping point on this one. All you need to know is that a “catfish” is someone trolling the net pretending to be someone else and that this movie has the distinction of coining the term. With the success of the MTV show, more has been added to the core definition that sort of confuses the issue. Such is the life of a word.
The movie, and it’s TV version, seem to offer a new vantage point on the ills of virtual reality and, who knows, may spark some soul-searching. To catfish or not to catfish? That is the question many people have dealt with and some have chosen to partake in the twisted game of deception and self-delusion. That’s the serious theme to consider and not lose sight of in comparison to the controversy over whether “Catfish” is a documentary or a hoax itself. Nev Schulman is the star of this movie and plays the role of a naive guy (or plays himself) and gets caught up in an online romance until we get to the big twist. Just like our celebrated sports hero, Notre Dame’s star linebacker, Manti Te’o, this is supposed to be the story of a young man falling prey to an elaborate hoax. It’s interesting how Notre Dame’s athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, referenced this movie in trying to explain the current Manti Te’o story. Is Swarbrick some sort of mumblecore film buff? Not so much.
The movie, for what it is, is well done. It now feels like something that couldn’t possibly happen today. However, the MTV show would beg to differ. Here is where we start to enter spoiler territory so beware. The pitch during the original run of “Catfish” was that you were better off knowing as little as possible about it before viewing. At this point, the opposite may hold true. Should you bother to see it after the premise has now become common knowledge and we’ve moved on to a TV show? Yes, it is worth the ride. After viewing it, you may likely come away wondering if this was all set up. The good thing about that, is that it adds something if you go on to watch the MTV show, also featuring Nev Schulman, because on that show, it really does feel like we’re nabbing internet trolls.
Nev Schulman goes from catfish victim to host of his own show helping potential catfish victims. Same idea as the movie, we go on a journey to confront the alleged online lover. It does feel authentic even if it could just as easily be a new and improved version of “The Jerry Springer Show,” which dosen’t even try to hide being staged. In the case of MTV’s offering, Nev really appears to be into getting to the truth. And the victims appear to lack enough common sense to be the real deal. In one case, the red flag is that the girl in question does not own a cell phone. “How is that even possible?” asks Nev, “That’s like saying you don’t own a pair of pants!” When the troll is revealed, it is a nervous young man who looks so ashamed as to be cringeworthy. He admits to pretending to be as many as a hundred other persons. And he admits that he feels better hiding behind his sexy avatar. It rings true and it seems to elevate the show to serving a public service. Maybe it is.
In 2008, when the movie was made, Nev, his brother Rel, and a friend, Henry Joost, decided to document a year in the life of Nev Schulman. (Both Rel and Henry have directed for the “Paranormal Activity” franchise.) That is what we keep hearing, at first, that this is a movie about Nev, which already seems a little suspicious. Unless this is a dramatization, which it does not claim to be, the three of them were all at the right place at the right time when a very strange thing started to happen to Nev. It is stated in the film that Nev was getting his photographs published in “The New York Sun” and that it caught the eye of a little girl prodigy, in Michigan, who started mailing him paintings inspired by his work. Look here and you’ll get a sense that “The New York Sun” was a rather obscure newspaper. So, how does it come to the attention of an 8-year-old in Michigan let alone much of anyone else outside of a select New York demographic? This is something that Nev does not question. In fact, when interviewed recently by New York Magazine, Nev reveals that, at that time in his life, he had dropped out of Sarah Lawrence and was shooting videos of bar mitzvahs to make a living. This is a pretty important aspect of his life not even mentioned in what is supposed to be a detailed account of Nev’s activities.
Nev’s friendship with the little girl, Abby, leads him to talk to her mom, Angela, on the phone. And that ultimately leads to his getting to know Abby’s older, and sexy, half-sister, Megan. Finally, one fateful night, Nev gets to talk to Megan on the phone, all neatly documented for our viewing pleasure, and he finds himself smitten. An online romance, and cautionary tale, has begun, complete with endless texting. Nev, to his credit, is a very likable sort but his range of emotional expression leaves much to be desired. There is little variance between love-struck Nev, stressed-out Nev, angry Nev, or concerned Nev. It all seems to settle down to one prevailing version: stressed-out Nev. Either the guy prefers to be left alone or he’s not a very compelling actor. That aside, and that’s a lot to set aside, if you let yourself, this movie can hook you in. There is absolutely no level of suspense to match, or even compare, to Hitchcock but you still want to know what the devil is going on.
You get to the point that you know that it is very unlikely that Nev is speaking with the woman he thinks he’s speaking with. It’s not as scary a moment as it should be and where you will want to shift gears to speculation over whether the documentary is real or not. That’s what will make this more entertaining, especially when you reach the part where Nev confronts the person who is supposed to be Megan. Again, this is the ulimtate spoiler alert if you’re totally new. We discover, to no one’s surprise, that sexy Megan has actually been Angela, Abby’s mom, all along. And the real life Angela is not the exotic creature Nev was led to believe. The real Angela is not glamorous. And to make matters more complicated, she appears stuck in a loveless marriage caretaking two developmentally disabled stepsons. This is the trickiest part of all. You feel you must conclude that this documentary is legit or how could Nev stoop so low as to exploit two developmentally disabled men? Perhaps, Nev and Angela are legitimate up to a point. They found a way to make art out of their respective lives and don’t see it as having crossed a line.
Finally, here is the take away. Where the heck did the term “catfish” come from anyway? This is the grace note that also appears to tip the hand of the filmmakers. In one of the final scenes, Vince, Angela’s unsavory husband, demonstrates some near poetic eloquence. As if lost in lofty thought, Vince offers up to Nev a brief history of the fishing industry in order to put Angela’s actions into perspective. He describes how carp were a potentially profitable import to China except for the damage they suffered on the long trip. The solution was to pack a few catfish with the carp and this kept the carp moving, agile and fresh. “Sometimes,” Vince concluded, “that is what society needs, a catfish to keep it guessing.” Was this something that Nev and his crew just happend upon or was it staged? Perhaps the filmmakers were attempting to have Vince explain how the film’s means justified its end.