Philip Markham (Edward Furlong) was rejected on national television. He never got the rose from Catherine Anderson (Jaime Pressley), he never got the true love and he never got the money. As the runner-up contestant on Lover’s Lane—a Joe Millionaire-styled dating show (only this time the girl was a waitress)—all Philip Markham got was heartache and humiliation. Now, Philip Markham is having his revenge. After killing Catherine and her lover, Philip has lured a cast of fresh twenty-somethings to Catherine’s secluded New Mexico estate to participate in his “new” reality show. A blend of Survivor and Fear Factor these contestants are battling each other for a million dollar prize—oh…and their lives!
Perhaps when it was shot back in 2005, CRUEL WORLD seemed more relevant. At that point we’re fully 5-years into the Reality Show Craze and most of the big programs had not yet jumped the shark. Unfortunately, the recent writer’s strike has left most of our televisions crammed with extra seasons of Big Brother and Beauty and the Geek, so that today Reality Television just feels like Television and everyone’s got a new gimmick. So, when director Kelsey T. Howard decided he wanted to shoot a film that spoofed “Reality TV” it probably seemed like a good idea on paper. In “reality” it’s anything but.
CRUEL WORLD is saddled with a lot of problems. To begin with, its ultra-low budget approach of shooting in a single camera-filled home could have been used to its advantage. Big Brother has shown us that you don’t need a camera crew to make a movie. All you need are a barrage of well-placed and well-edited surveillance cameras. What should have seemed like a simple artistic choice already cripples the movie’s satirical subplot. It never feels like a reality show, it feels like a bad B-Movie. The other problem is virtually unforgivable. With three writers on this pedantic screenplay, no one could come up with a descent reality show concept. Now, if you look at the crap that’s on TV every five seconds in primetime it’s obvious that it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to envision something more interesting than “shoot each other with paintballs” or “Get in this box filled with green slime and plastic spiders”—this is where CRUEL WORLD fails and where a film like WRONG TURN 2 works.
The casting provides some interesting faces for the camera including Andrew Keegan (10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU), Susan Ward (DEAD & DEADER) and Laura Ramsey (THE RUINS), but they don’t have anything to do. Keegan is the bad boy and he makes his moves on Ward the southern belle slut. Ramsey is the good girl and the object of obsession for Markham and his ogre like semi-retarded brother Claude (Daniel Franzese of KILLER PAD). Since Jaime Pressley is dispatched with during the first 10-minutes of the film, this is really Furlong’s show and he looks, sounds and acts tired. Like he couldn’t care less as he chews the scenery to shreds. In fact, his only moment of spark comes near the end of the film when he gets into an argument about Claude’s inability to keep an eye on one of the contestants while he runs to the Grocery Store for some snack food.
The rest of the cast is rounded out with “The Country Boy”, “The Spicy Latina”, “The Gay Guy” and “The Asian Chick”. It’s a collection of stereotypes that could be viewed on 2, 6 and 9 every night at 8:00, so it should have been ripe for the ripping. However the screenplay’s less-than-one-dimensional characterizations mostly leave the cast sitting around hooting and hollering, doing shots and acting like idiots—you know what…maybe they WERE on to something here.
All of this might have been forgivable if the kills had been spectacular. But sadly they aren’t—we get a buried alive here and a decapitation there, a girl drowns off screen, yadda, yadda, yadda. The filmmaker missed out on the clear opportunity to create some interesting challenges for the players and then use those challenges to dispatch the “loser” in the most effective way possible. Here the cast is simply voted off the show and voted out of the movie.
Reality television might seem ripe for the skewering but no one has managed to get it right yet. Perhaps the fact that the “reality” in reality television that is so far removed from actually real life makes it so difficult. Satire usually boils people down to simple stereotypes, and then it uses those stereotypes and hyperbolic situations to make them funny. Reality Television is exactly that formula applied to what they deem “real life”. So the question becomes, how to make fun of something that is already a joke? The best answer I can give you in this CRUEL WORLD is to simply change the channel.