Reality Check

A comic, quasi-documentary look at director/ writer/star Myles Berkowitz's search for love, 20 Dates so successfully blurs the line between fiction and reality that we're unsure which events are legitimately captured and which are constructed. A struggling, recently divorced filmmaker, Berkowitz decides to satisfy his two most pressing desires simultaneously: making a movie and finding a woman. He thus films his first 20 post-divorce dates, sometimes surreptitiously, sometimes brazenly. Between these awkward, unsuccessful liaisons, Berkowitz speaks to us directly, on camera and in voice-over, discussing his manifold woes and detailing his financing pressures (hilariously profane producer Elie Samaha, who is only heard and never seen, wants sex and a star, preferably his own wife, Tia Carrere). When Berkowitz actually falls in love with one of his subjects, Elisabeth Wagner (now his fiancee), before the 20-date deadline, he then faces another dilemma, a choice between life and art: Does he jeopardize his relationship by continuing to date, or does he abandon his film? There's no real narrative tension here (we're watching the movie, after all, so we know Myles forges ahead) and only superficial romantic insight, but Berkowitz provides a fair share of comedy -- making himself the butt of the film's best jokes -- and the postmodern structure freshens even the stalest conceits.

That tricky structure, in fact, is 20 Dates' most intriguing feature, and it raises some fascinating -- and potentially disturbing -- questions. The film's documentary form carries with it an implicit promise that what we're seeing is (at least mostly) real, and much of the pleasure we derive from the movie is intimately bound up in its honesty, its truth: This isn't just another feel-good false romance, Berkowitz claims. It's my honest-to-God life. But is it? How much of 20 Dates occurred in spontaneous, unrehearsed fashion, and how much was restaged or simply contrived? Can we trust the clearly manipulative Berkowitz we see in front of the camera to not behave just as sneakily behind it? Is he shaping events, or re-jiggering sequences, or flat-out lying? Why should we trust him to play any more fairly with his audience than he does with his unwitting dates?

In town last November to introduce a midnight show of 20 Dates at the St. Louis International Film Festival, a playfully combative Berkowitz -- accompanied by the charming and undeniably corporeal Elisabeth -- sat down to answer, but mostly avoid, a few of those queries:

"You seem to want to know specifics as to what's real and what's not," Berkowitz responds at one contentious stage in the interview. "You know, I don't see any good coming out of that conversation. In some regards, I think you're asking a magician to show you how he's doing certain tricks."

"You're asking me if this movie is real," he says with slightly wounded peevishness at another point. "I think the most important thing you have to know is look at her left hand," indicating Elisabeth's engagement ring. "On this movie, I met Elisabeth, and we fell in love, and we got engaged, and we're gonna get married and spend the rest of our life together.

"This is the most important question: Is Elisabeth real? Did that happen? Yeah. If Elisabeth were an actress and if we weren't together, we didn't meet this way, I think people would be upset. I don't think people would enjoy it. I think most people would leave the theater not wanting to ask that question because they enjoyed the movie, just like any movie: You really hope that Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan are in love and together at the end, (even though) both of them have very successful marriages and relationships aside. That is movie magic."

Berkowitz does admit that he was asking for some degree of skeptical scrutiny -- "I did raise the stakes on this at the beginning by saying, 'This is going to be real. I'm capturing reality.' So, yeah, I brought that on myself." -- but he takes pains to distinguish 20 Dates from the traditional nonfiction feature: "To me, a documentary should be, let the camera roll, let what happens happen in the time that it happens," he says. "That's a true documentary. We're out to entertain, make people laugh and tell a story.

"We're not saying that I have proof of the president's crimes here or something like that. It's an entertaining movie, and that's all we claim it to be. Ultimately, this is a romantic comedy. People are going in, they're laughing and they're identifying with me and they're enjoying themselves, and they're also seeing parts of themselves up there. So that's what we are: We are a romantic comedy."

Berkowitz willingly confesses that he shaped 20 Dates on some levels: "Because it was so narration-heavy," he says, "we had to go back and do pickups and juggle things around so we could tell the story in the most entertaining and humorous manner possible." But he downplays any fictional component -- "There are parts of this movie that you would be convinced are not real, and I assure you that they are" -- and insists that the story, once set in motion, chose its own course: The movie starts with a simple, provocative premise -- go on 20 dates -- and then allows events to proceed with no clear end in mind. "I started this movie thinking I would go out on 20 dates and get some laughs," he explains, "and it would be a mean little, vicious comedy about dating. What happened was that it got out of control. It ended up going from being sort of my almost angry look at dating to a very heartfelt, sweet romantic story. That took me by surprise."

In the end, Berkowitz believes that ignorance is bliss: "The typical reaction I've gotten to this movie happened in Las Vegas, where the head of the film festival said to me afterward, 'So, you know, just between you and me, is this real?' And I said, 'Well ...' And he goes, 'I don't want to know. I don't want to know.' And he ran off. Every time we show this movie I'm surprised that everybody isn't asking this, but they're not.

"I think what's important is that Elisabeth is real. And I met her during this movie and we fell in love. It's that dream come true. I think if that wasn't real, then it would piss people off. That part's real. So that's the fun, Hollywood ending. That's the story, and people are very excited in the moviegoing experience knowing that they're watching something real. And that's what's great.