Move over Bamboozled. Here comes the next shocking satire about U.S. mass voyeurism and our submersion of the sadistic elements in our nature as illuminated via the story of an outrageous TV show. Instead of concealed (or less-concealed) racism, however, Live! explores our inherent blood lust and the current desperate situation of humanity. And it may just secure itself a place in cinema history — in a respected if not starring role.
Oscar-winning documentarian Bill Guttentag takes the helm here, writing and directing the tale of Katy Courbet (Eva Mendes), a hotshot network exec on a crusade to produce the program she believes will set her in the annals of the world as an innovator: A live game show in which the contestants play Russian roulette. Five of the 6 players will win $5 million, and the sixth will blow his brains out with a .357 revolver in front of everyone.
In large part, Live! explores the act of watching — and watching as a form of participation, of experience and expression — the Gaze, as they say in film school (yes, Foucault). Live! provides several layers of gaze: Working from the inside out at the film’s most complex, we have pre-recorded biographical segments on the contestants that play on screens on stage, then the contestants and audience watching the screens, then the TV cameras’ images on screen in the control booth, then the people watching the screens, then camera of the documentarians who follow Courbet throughout the film, and then the viewers in theater. (The line of course is not that clean or straight, but you get the idea.) And always, the focus remains on Nielsen ratings and market share — on viewers.
The film explores who watches, why we watch, what we want to watch, what’s appropriate to watch, and how many will tune in. We also get the other side — who wants to be watched and why. And what happens when watchers become watched? Or the filmed take hold of the camera? Or the lens gets turned on the cameraman?
The acting works well here with most of the actors turning in vivid but relaxed and naturalistic — though not breathtaking — performances. Being able to acknowledge the camera takes a lot of pressure away from “performing”, and the actors all play well with the device. TV fans will see familiar faces like David Krumholtz (Num3ers), Andre Braugher (Homicide), Charlotte Ross (NYPD Blue), Jay Hernandez (Six Degrees), and Jeffrey Dean Morgan — yes, Grey’s Anatomy’s Denny Duquette has resurrected and turns in a great little performance. (How does one man make ‘pathetic’ and ‘tragic’ look so hunky?) Braugher is solid of course, palpable and vibrantly understated. Krumholtz, playing a normal man for once, is great, and really makes sparks with Mendes who seems to get sexier with each piece she does. And here she’s as charming and accessible as always.
But the acting comes as part of a powerful package of technical virtues, particularly the writing and the utilization of the documentary crew, which provides the pivotal lens, making the film’s events both less dramatized and more immediate. In the end, all the facets submit themselves to the service of the film as a whole and turn it into an interesting, affecting, and surprising drama. Live! plunges into the sickness of our wildly hungry, commercial society and sounds an alarm about the the cracking of our culture — heralded by the continuous shunning of art in favor of “reality” — that reveals the seething potion of human nature that we’ve tried to relegate out of existence. It warns against our succumbing to our basest elements — and how much we risk when we ignore them completely. We’re in crisis. And you can watch it live.