Don't Try this at Home, Part 3

What happens when a regular Joe re-creates scenes from the movies in his own life to test Hollywood's grip on reality? Here, our intrepid reporter reports on his third attempt to find some shred of celluloid credibility, for which he willingly put himself in such life-threatening situations as nearly freezing to death in the Atlantic Ocean.

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Seven years ago, responding to its mission as an informal cultural consumer-protection agency, Movieline magazine commissioned me to reenact a number of inspired scenes from famous movies to see if they would work in real life. The results were profoundly disheartening. Despite my industrious efforts, I was not able to persuade a prostitute to accompany me to a business dinner and pretend to be somebody incredibly sophisticated named Vivian, the way Richard Gere did with Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman. I was similarly unsuccessful in persuading women to swallow numerous unappetizing foodstuffs the way Mickey Rourke did with Kim Basinger in 9 1/2 Weeks. And I had no luck landing a job as head of a prominent psychiatric institution without even coming in for an interview the way Gregory Peck did in Spellbound.

Based on my exhaustive review of more than a dozen motion pictures, I felt it was safe to say that movies were just incredibly stupid, littered from beginning to end with tantalizing ploys, clever gambits and ingenious tricks that looked great up on the screen but would never work in the real world.

When I embarked on a follow-up study in 1993, I was chagrined to find that improvement in this area of the cinematic arts was progressing at a glacial pace, if at all. Unlike Sharon Stone in Sliver, my female acquaintances were not prepared to take off their panties in public, and unlike Willem Dafoe in Body of Evidence, I did not find hot candle wax to have a stimulating aphrodisiacal effect when dripped on my genitals. What's more, when I went to Harlem to re-create the scene in White Men Can't Jump where Woody Harrelson toasts Wesley Snipes in a game of pickup basketball, I got my ass whipped. It's not just the fact that white men can't jump; they can't dribble, they can't rebound, and they can't shoot either. In the end, I came away with the same conclusion I had reached two years earlier: Hollywood remained "a twisted dream factory, spoon-feeding the public a hopelessly skewed, transparently fake vision of reality."

In the five years since "Don't Try This at Home: The Sequel" appeared, I have held my tongue on this subject, hoping, foolishly, that my second expose would produce the results that my first attempt had so dismally failed to elicit. For a while, it seemed that there might be a tiny glimmer of hope. Based on my extensive exposure to the Industry's finest products in the years 1993-1996, it did appear that some effort had been made to invest popular films with a higher degree of verisimilitude. I think, for example, that in Speed, Jan De Bont faithfully captured the daily horrors of the modem transportation experience. But in the past year or so, it has become evident that this brief Golden Age of Celluloid Credibility is at an end. No matter how you cut it, die-hard Red Sox fans do not give up their tickets to Game 6 of the World Series just so they can be with some fucking girl the way Robin Williams claimed he did in Good Will Hunting. And in real life, guys who look as ordinary as Dermot Mulroney does in My Best Friend's Wedding never get to choose between Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz. They get to choose between Tori Spelling and Illeana Douglas. If they're lucky.

Of course, the foregoing are merely observations, not hard-won truths derived from the rigorous scientific analysis that characterized the first two installments of "Don't Try This at Home." And so, if only to give Hollywood the benefit of the doubt, I decided that it was time to plunge in once more and determine to what degree contemporary films deviate from the established parameters of what laymen and clinicians alike refer to as "reality."

Titanic seemed like a good place to begin.

Whether or not Titanic as a whole presents a credible reenactment of the historic events of April 15, 1912 need not concern us here; personally, I don't believe in a Supreme Being who would condemn 1,523 souls to the depths of the North Atlantic just because the night watchman was so busy eyeing a couple making out on deck that he missed spotting an iceberg until it was too late. But Titanic contains one pivotal scene so glaring in its departure from reality that I felt honor bound to reenact it if only to warn the public: "Whatever you do, don't try this at home."

This is the scene where Leonardo DiCaprio spends eight minutes in frigid waters blabbing away to Kate Winslet while the life force ebbs out of his spindly body. I was already of the opinion there was something thermally suspect about the plot of Titanic when Leo and Kate spent almost four minutes partially submerged in the bowels of the listing ocean liner without seeming to be any worse for wear. To follow that up with the eight minutes up to the neck in 28-degree water was obviously pushing believability even further. So my very first assignment was to leap into the ominous waters of the Atlantic myself at roughly the same time of year that the Titanic sank and establish:

1) How long I could stay in the water without dying.

2) How chatty I could be under the circumstances

Here, a word about methodology. Because Movieline has a constricted research budget, it was not possible for me to travel 453 miles south of Newfoundland and plunge into the arctic waters where 1,523 doomed passengers met their fate. Instead, I decided to re-create the scene 30 yards off the shore of a New York area beach. It goes without saying that the water, though a tad nippy, would be significantly less icy than the 28-degree waters that engulfed the Titanic that tragic night 86 years ago. What's more, I carry quite a few more pounds than the sleek Leonardo DiCaprio, and could rely on my body fat to keep me going longer than he did. It was thus entirely possible that I might last longer in the water than DiCaprio did, suggesting that his feat was actually within the range of possibility.

On the other hand, I have a few more years on me than the young DiCaprio. So it's possible his nervous system would outperform mine.

All things considered, I decided that the assorted variables would ultimately cancel themselves out. If I could stay in the water for eight full minutes and say things like, "I don't know about you, but I intend to write a strongly worded letter to the White Star Line," it would effectively refute my critique of James Cameron's seemingly zany plot device and make me seem like a mean-spirited old coot who was simply jealous of the director's enormous success. If, on the other hand, I perished in the Atlantic before the eight minutes had elapsed, it would prove to be my final legacy, the last death-defying escapade of a valiant iconoclast who had given his life in the service of the truth.

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