Taking swipes at the reality show phenomenon is so easy that perhaps helmers Michael Nigro and Perry Grebin made a conscious decision to remain on the fence, but their nonjudgmental approach to “American Cannibal: The Road to Reality” fails to draw any conclusions and, thanks to legal issues, leaves too many questions unanswered. Although chronicling a show that pushes the envelope to extremes, docu is far too cautious in probing its contents, packed with sleazy promoters, fame-craving contestants and mocking sadists. A certain train-wreck fascination may result in limited bicoastal play, though cable seems the most likely outlet.
Pic was conceived as a docu on pitching TV shows, but once the helmers met writers Gil Ripley and Dave Roberts pushing a sitcom on Comedy Central (pretty dire from the brief clip seen), they decided to stick with these honest but lost souls exploring the jungle of small screen salesmanship. Realizing that reality shows have become a behemoth devouring everything in sight, the two writers/friends brainstormed in search of something “mindless, simple and compelling” that would grab jaded producers.
After numerous rejections, they found Kevin Blatt, a porn tape promoter most famous for getting Paris Hilton’s sex vid into millions of homes. Blatt is initially sold on the idea of “Virgin Territory,” with its catchphrase, “When you win it, you lose it.” But after thoughtful consideration, he decided something more mainstream would help change his image.
Blatt seized on an idea Ripley initially pitched as a lark: “American Cannibal,” in which contestants are taken to an island and told that someone will end up being eaten. Suddenly the bluff becomes real, and Ripley and Roberts scramble for a viable outline. Realizing they’re in over their heads, Ripley becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the direction his career is taking, while Roberts, with a wife and kids to support, is stoked to make some money.
Docu’s most interesting element is watching the relationship between the two friends crumble as pressures mount to come up with progressively outrageous, sadistic stunts. It all came crashing down when one of the contestants was airlifted out in a coma.
Both the cause of the accident and the fate of the contestant remain a mystery, for legal reasons, but it’s indicative of the callous nature of reality TV in general that no one except for the two outsiders really seem to care. Even helmers Nigro and Grebin move in for a closer shot of the bleeding woman before being shooed away, a distasteful moment that uncomfortably blends the lines between docu and subject matter.
Interspersed among the scenes are industry insiders and academics remarking on the reality TV phenomenon, largely defending the genre with callous cynicism dressed up as market research. Helmers seem drawn to uncomfortable moments, their roving steadycam seeking out the confrontational and lingering on uneasy silences. Tech credits are standard.