Myles Berkowitz wanted to bring the anguish of singlehood into America's movie theaters. So, the story goes, he took a hidden camera crew with him on 20 real-life romantic encounters, enduring a series of humiliations on film before finding true love with a retail sales clerk named Elisabeth Wagner.
In the process, he suffered the abuses of a producer (Elie Samaha) who threatened him with physical violence if he didn't inject some high-gloss sex into the story. And he fielded lawsuits filed by two of his dates, who were indignant to discover that their likenesses had been used without permission.
Here's the rub: It's all a scam. It's immediately obvious that every frame of the duplicitous "20 Dates" is a setup -- a scripted and acted scenario that rings resoundingly false to any audience that's enjoyed the merest whiff of acquaintance with real life. The framing of sequences, the timing of gags and the delivery of key lines are simply too perfect to have occurred naturally. A sometimes clever comedian but the clumsiest of charlatans, Berkowitz tries to pass material off as cinema verité that would have been a tougher (albeit honest) sell as mockumentary.
As a result, he leaves himself open to every brickbat that intentionally flawed constructs like Garry Shandling's Larry Sanders never have to withstand. Presenting himself as a confused but lovable Everyguy -- a more ethnic, less magnetic version of "I'm a Pepper" pitchman David Naughton -- Berkowitz is instead laid bare as a narcissistic jerk whose self-deprecation doesn't hide his ugly misogyny. He shamelessly announces his intention to get his dates drunk, reasoning that this will make for better footage. He asks one to steal clothes for him from her job, then wallows when she never returns from the ladies' room. He takes another to the notorious bistro that was the site of Nicole Brown Simpson's last meal. Questionable taste, to say the least.
It's no coincidence that this fascinating epic of delusion takes place in Hollywood; one of Berkowitz's friends sums up that burg's social milieu by stating that all dating is acting. But "20 Dates" marks the dawn of a new era in reality deprogramming. One wonders which is more troubling: Berkowitz's apparent belief that his audience is too stupid to distinguish between fantasy and fact, or the creeping suspicion that he might not know, either.