20 Dates

Rating ** Worth seeing

Written and directed by Myles Berkowitz

By Bill Stamets

Humiliation is one of the ugly little motors that drive Hollywood, a karmic sump pump that drains the egos of stars and fans alike. We elevate actors into icons so we can savor their make-believe beauty and mythic lives and negate ourselves. We cheer the backstory of their rise to fame as much as their on-screen adventures. Yet we also trash them, eating up their box-office defeats, marital crises, and cosmetic surgeries; this phenomenon surfaces every year at the Oscars, where the stars expose themselves, their escorts, their hairdos, and their outfits to a shower of kudos and scorn from their constituencies in the press and public.

In 20 Dates writer, director, star, and narrator Myles Berkowitz routinely humiliates a score of women in Los Angeles, showing up for dates with a video crew in tow (though all 20 women signed releases allowing him to use the ambush-style footage). Ultimately Berkowitz humiliates himself most of all, allowing editors Michael Elliot and Lisa Cheek to include his most obnoxious moments, a crass bid for fame by a struggling actor eager to make it in Hollywood. After winning the Audience Feature Award at the 1998 Slamdance film festival, Berkowitz promised the festival a 10 percent kickback from his profits; what he sacrificed in personal dignity he earned back in a distribution deal with Fox Searchlight Pictures.

“Wouldn’t it be interesting to make a movie about my two biggest failures–my professional life and my personal life?” Berkowitz asks, and he’s not kidding. Driving up to the security gate at a studio lot, he asks a guard: “Is there anybody more important than you I can pay off?” The producer who put up the $60,000 budget, “Elie,” is heard throughout the film–in tapes Berkowitz claims he recorded secretly–ranting, “Love don’t fucking exist,” “P fucking G,” and “I want a fucking happy ending!” Increasingly dubious about Berkowitz’s luck with women, Elie sets him up with a professional escort who purrs, “I’d go down on any guy who has mutual respect in a second.” Cut to Berkowitz in his boxers, closing her curtains as his crew tapes from across the street.

20 Dates may be unpleasant to watch, but despite Berkowitz’s icky manners and unwinning calculations, he does find true love, delivering a happy ending as he and his beloved, Elisabeth Wagner, hold hands for a corny stroll into the sunset. “It’s a typical Hollywood ending to a movie that wanted to avoid that,” he said during the Chicago stop of his publicity tour. Courting critics with more elan than he displays on camera, the former waiter explained, “The project got away from me, and all of a sudden I’m wandering around and making and living in a romantic comedy. I don’t like romantic comedies. I never go see romantic comedies. But it really happened. You want to meet her? She’s here. We’re engaged.” The wedding is next fall.

Berkowitz winces when asked if 20 Dates is a mockumentary. He told me that after a screening a studio chief turned to him and said, “So this is all fake, right?” Not at all, as evidenced by the legal expense of securing releases and settling lawsuits. For his next movie, Berkowitz–a lifelong fan of The Candidate–says he wants to enter the presidential primary in New Hampshire and take a film crew along. Politics has its own rites of humiliation, as candidates grovel for donors and voters swallow their sweet, shiny lies. But Americans are hell-bent on debasing themselves. Hands on a Hard Body, a recent film by S.R. Bindler, documented a car dealer’s promotion in which 23 Texans tried to win a new Nissan by standing nonstop for a few days without taking their hands off the vehicle. For its new release EDtv, Universal Pictures ran a ticket giveaway asking readers to “simply bring a candid photo of yourself in an embarrassing moment.” In 20 Dates Myles Berkowitz strings together one embarrassing moment after another and triumphs in a culture characterized by actorly artifice. Interviewing a woman on the street, he asks, “Being single in LA is like…?”

“Being an actor,” she replies. “You’re always auditioning.” Mr. Berkowitz, your close-up is ready.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): 20 Dates film still.