20 Dates film review

Film review of 20 Dates, appeared in the Australian Jewish News on September 3, 1999

Romantic films are awfully hard to make, and funny ones even harder.  When they are done well, the audiences just flock to them; witness the success of When Harry Met Sally and Sleepless in Seattle.  In his breakthrough “real-life” romantic documentary 20 Dates, American filmmaker Myles Berkowitz knows the formula well.  One of his mentors is, after all, Robert McKee, one of the gurus of scriptwriting. Berkowitz includes a number of interview clips with McKee, who sagely comments that “the best love stories are not even love stories, but stories about the longing for love”.

Myles Berkowitz is an entrepreneurial, pushy thirty-ish Jewish screenwriter and actor who comes up with a great idea: make a film about a young man in Los Angeles searching for love through going on twenty dates.  He convinces his agent who in turn finds $60,000 from a shadowy (and occasionally threatening) producer named Elie Samaha.  The result is 20 Dates, a film about searching for love and making it in Hollywood. Fans of this personal documentary style may recall Sherman’s March (which mostly took place in Georgia) and My Matchmaker (Jewish Chicago); put them together and the Los Angeles version is 20 Dates.

Like his predecessors, Myles Berkowitz is an intense, willing-to-bare-all-for-art somewhat bland man who has known much rejection in love.  With a small crew (cameraman and soundman), he pushes out into the world of modern dating.  Some dates are truly disastrous, particularly when he decides to film secretly and only tell his date at the end.  (Two different women sue him for invasion of privacy.)  In others he pushes himself way beyond where he thought he would go (bungy-jumping, even though he is terrified of heights).  Some are truly cringeful and embarrassing, excruciatingly painful to watch.

Berkowitz pushes the envelope in his desperate search to achieve 20 dates:  crashes a (Jewish) wedding where he attempts to pick up the groom’s sister, inadvertently causes one date’s boyfriend to go violent, and reluctantly submits to dating beautiful models because his producer wants “beautiful women and sex” on screen.  But what he did not expect – although always hoped for – was actually to meet the woman of his dreams.  He does so with Elisabeth, except she is not date number 20, only 15, and “it’s really hard to continue dating when you have a girlfriend”.

This feature-length documentary has humour, insight and lots and lots of chutzpah. The editing is tight, and the result is in fact far more meaningful than Berkowitz is wise.  He may have found a lovely woman who adores him, but has not quite learned all of the lessons about life which this process was trying to teach him.  That, of course, is a good part of the fun, and Berkowitz gleefully allows us to share the experience.

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