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Reel Paradise

Year Released: 2005
Directed By: Steve James
(R, 110 min.)

When it comes to mid-life crises, some guys buy Porsches, some nail hot blondes, and some just muddle through. Freshly minted Austinite and famed producer's rep/author/gadabout John Pierson (his resumé includes key assistance to the early films of indie luminaries ranging from Spike Lee to Kevin Smith to Michael Moore and Richard Linklater) chose to relocate his entire family - wife and producing partner Janet, 13-year-old son Wyatt, and 16-year-old daughter Georgia - to Nowheresville, aka the Fijian island of Taveuni, where he could, if all went according to plan, leave behind the indie film rat race, immerse himself in a completely foreign culture, and, best of all, screen all sorts of movies for the natives. Taveuni is a far cry from Pierson's old Westchester, New York, stomping grounds, but it does indeed come with its own theatre: the 180 Meridian Cinema, a dusty, disused rattletrap cinema replete with rickety seating and the dynamic duo, Mickey Mouse and Bug Bunny, emblazoned across its chipped and peeling whitewashed facade. Once in town, Pierson promptly begins showing - for free, no less - scads of current-release Hollywood films that run the gamut from Apocalypse Now Redux to the MTV gross-out package Jackass, which promptly draws the ire of the local Catholic clergy, who question this newcomer's motives and inadvertently begin a series of hearts-and-minds skirmishes between the Pierson clan and the Roman Catholic Church. Pierson, who with his gangly frame and jocularly forthright manner resembles no one so much as a pre-fashion victim Wes Anderson, gives the venture his all, verbally sparring with the local hoity-toities while attempting to contain a second front in the form of daughter Georgia's burgeoning fast-girl rep amongst village gossip snipers. In between, there's a wicked bout of dengue fever, burglaries, and theatre travails galore, but at its core Reel Paradise serves not only as a charming, witty glimpse into an American nuclear family uprooted to browner pastures but also as an exploration of how Hollywood product is viewed outside the Lower 48. To the Taveunians, Pierson is a godsend (or possibly a venerated cargo cult of some sort), and his screenings of dumb-fun studio outings such as The Hot Chick and Undercover Brother go over like gangbusters, while more challenging offerings like Apocalypse Now Redux fare less well. (Interestingly, it's the borderline xenophobic zaniness of the Three Stooges in the locally revered short, "Some More of Samoa," that nab the biggest laughs.) Documentary director Steve James (Hoop Dreams, Stevie) is an old associate of the Piersons and was given unlimited access to their Fijian world, which makes for a far more interesting roll of family vacation movies than most people could manage. True, the melodrama on display here can't compare to the likes of Larry, Moe, Curly, and the cannibals, but then this goofily charming quartet of Western outsiders is far more real than reel. (See p. xx of this week's issue for an interview with the Piersons.)

Marc Savlov [2005-09-30]

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