It’s easy enough to say that a movie or TV show “looks fake,” the armchair critic’s equivalent of cutting someone down to size with a scoff of “Nice haircut!” But in the same respect that some people really do have regrettable coiffures, some creative works exude a palpable air of inauthenticity distinct from garden-variety badness. “Fake” is not an all-purpose diss; fly-by-night DTV crapola like Cocaine Bear ripoff Methgator doesn’t fit the bill, chintzy but ultimately and wholly its own thing. The descriptor refers to art with a specific flavor and texture of not-realness, a hard-to-pin-down quality of self-parody that hinges on a precedent. When someone claims that a film or series “looks fake,” they mean that it feels like something which would play inside the universe of a different film or series, so close to the contours of showbiz satire that it comes off like a joke.
All this is to say that there are many different kinds of fake media, the newest minted by Todd Haynes’ crafty melodramedy May December. In it, Natalie Portman plays actress Elizabeth Berry, who’s kind of like an amoral, low-rent Natalie Portman. Her commitment to craft leads her to cross some serious ethical boundaries in pursuit of greatness, even though her highest-profile credit to date is veterinary procedural Norah’s Ark, and her big silver-screen gig as a Mary Kay LeTourneau type isn’t so far from a Lifetime Original. We get only brief glimpses of these two fictitious works, and yet they’ve permanently captured a certain strain of tawdry star-vehicle for A-list actresses. So when the trailer for Mother’s Instinct surfaced online earlier this week, featuring Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain as dueling housewives caught in a lurid web of death and vengeance, the unique and unmistakable stamp of May December fakeness was already on it. This is only one variety of fakery — below, we’ve compiled a comprehensive and highly academic taxonomy of the rest.
30 Rock fake
It sometimes feels like all of reality trickles down from Tina Fey’s modern-classic sitcom, built as it is on the prescient bet that culture will only get broader and dumber with time. Across seven seasons, a smorgasbord of faux pop culture conveyed a dismay and affection for lowest-common-denominator swill: schedule-filler unscripted programming, DOA awards bait shelved by its studio, zillionth sequels, Tyler Perry output, TV movies sponsored by Pride Bladder Control Pads. Their unauthorized Janis Joplin biopic Sing Dem Blues, White Girl: The Jackie Jormp-Jomp Story had a bead on the David Bowie treatment Stardust a decade before its producers failed to secure the music rights, and the hornt-up Survivor spoof MILF Island could sue TLC’s MILF Manor for royalties. But wherever people who consider themselves artists compromise the integrity of their work, wherever the C-list meets the D-list, wherever the bottom of the industry’s barrel gets a good scraping, flashbacks to 30 Rock follow close behind.
Tropic Thunder / Funny People fake
Instead of trawling the fringes of the business, a pair of comedies released one year apart near the tail end of Bush’s America chased the moment’s stupidity to the highest echelons of Hollywood. Ben Stiller’s send-up of movie stardom begins with a reel of ersatz trailers for the latest projects from the invented ensemble: the braindead post-apocalyptic CGI showcase Scorcher franchise, the overwrought gay-monk drama Satan’s Alley, and the sub-Klumps fat-suit fart-a-thon Fatties. That last one comes closest to the filmography of George Simmons, the sad-sack Adam Sandler stand-in portrayed by a grimacing Adam Sandler for Judd Apatow’s homage to Woody Allen’s homages to Ingmar Bergman. The memorabilia littering George’s mansion — posters for low-effort/high-concept turds like Merman and Re-Do, in which he’s magically turned into a half-fish and baby, respectively — surrounds him with mocking reminders of how hard he’s been phoning it in, a rich hack estranged from his roots in stand-up. The resultant strain of fake movie sees bona fide talent slumming it for the easy paychecks that come with a name brand, covering everything from Eddie Murphy’s recent Christmastime clunker Candy Cane Lane to all onscreen appearances from Dwayne Johnson in the last ten years.
Difficult People / The Other Two fake
Another twofer, this time pairing savvy piss-takes on entertainment’s in-club from the hangers-on trying to get the door guy to let them enter. Both sets of hapless leads — non-union non-stars Billy and Julie in the former, sidelined siblings Cary and Brooke in the latter — their writers, and their viewerships skew gay and media-savvy, so the laser-precise cracks come perilously close to real-life plausibility. (To wit: non-binary blob makes queer history for Disney, photorealistic Bambi remake coming down the pipe.) The key is the inside-baseball knowledge of the industry’s functioning and quirks, punch lines that double as critiques of boneheaded C-suite decisionmaking. These shows’ legacy lives on in every Variety headline that sounds like it was generated by a money-motivated Mad Libs template: Crayon manufacturer Crayola is launching a film production shingle! Start-up streaming platform with $1.75 billion in backing produces original content no longer than ten minutes, only to shutter after eight months! Every series released under the aegis of Quibi perfectly crystallizes this spirit of fakeness, from misbegotten social-issues drama #freerayshawn to Nikki Fre$h, an (actually quite funny) mockumentary chronicling the eco-activist efforts and burgeoning trap-rap career of Nicole Richie.
In between the tragedies and triumphs of hanging out with your boys, HBO’s bromantic comedy occasionally lampooned LA as company-town madhouse, with egomaniacs and eccentrics regularly crossing the path of ascendant screen idol Vincent Chase. But the ribbing was always gentle and affectionate, most clearly reflected in the irony-free excerpts from Vinny’s filmography, never in on the bit of how terrible they all appear to be. In choosing his roles, he gravitated towards thick-skulled versions of existing dorm-poster classics: the gritty indie crime saga Queens Boulevard (Dumb Mean Streets), blood-soaked Pablo Escobar biopic Medellín (Dumb Scarface), and an Aquaman (Dumb Aquaman) that somehow landed James Cameron to direct. (The less said about the EDM Jekyll and Hyde reboot from the feature-length follow-up, the better.) Every wannabe imitator of the Intro to Film jock canon strikes this particular chord, especially off-brand gangster non-epics like the Kray twins double-portrait Legend, the calamitous Capone, or the exquisitely ridiculous Gotti.
Elaine famously hated The English Patient enough to scream “DIE ALREADY!” in a crowded theater, but the shadow of the treacly Oscar-winner loomed over more than just that episode. Distributor Miramax trafficked in these middlebrow, handsomely-mounted imports during the ‘90s, titles just sexy and European enough to make American audiences feel cultured, and ideal targets for the observational style of the show about nothing. Seinfeld’s inventions like The Muted Heart and Rochelle, Rochelle — “a young girl’s erotic journey from Milan to Minsk,” perhaps closest in spirit to ‘70s softcore gem Emmanuelle — gesture to an entire micro-genre of festival selections, many of them respectable achievements in cinema. The polish, the prim sensuality, and the overwhelming Frenchness of Portrait of a Lady on Fire or The Taste of Things set them apart, fitting almost too squarely inside the American image of the arthouse. It’s easy to imagine George lying about having seen them to impress a date.
Clouds of Sils Maria fake
In Olivier Assayas’ rumination on performance and the self, Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders, an esteemed French thespian prepping for a stage production opposite a millennial American starlet best known for her tabloid-friendly scandals. To get acquainted with her upcoming scene partner, Maria pops into a movie house to see her in the delectably idiotic Time Ship, a 3D sci-fi turkey in which spacesuits have built-in high heels and hands shoot energy beams capable of vaporizing enemies. We catch an earful of self-serious dialogue about Dr. Praetorius, the Scarlet Witch, and some vague Alliance, which rings in the ear every time someone thinks making the next Star Wars is as simple as coming up with some pretend proper nouns. Zack Snyder’s intensely generic Rebel Moon and the weird, wondrous Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets both fit the bill, as does anything getting by on hand-wavey talk about sinister empires and scrappy bands of freedom fighters. Coming from a Frenchman taking potshots at Hollywood, Time Ship may be low-hanging fruit, but we’re not doing ourselves any favors by constantly lunging for it.
Originally Appeared on GQ