The Bottom Line
Doc captures the charm of the celebrated pranksters’ work but suggests that charm is finite.
South By Southwest, Documentary Spotlight
AUSTIN — The story of how a college grad with Broadway dreams but no prospects wound up coordinating stunts involving hundreds of strangers in Manhattan’s most public places, could hardly fail to provide a certain amount of anarchic entertainment. Its look at Charlie Todd and his Improv Everywhere project is surprisingly straight given the nature of the subject (and the fact that director Matt Adams is part of the crew), and many viewers will find the pranksters’ ragtag charm wears off as they become more successful. But the film is a welcome piece of cultural history that incidentally chronicles a pivotal moment in the rise of YouTube.
It all began with what could have been a sleazy lie: Todd, meeting a couple of friends at a bar, responded to an observation that he looks like musician Ben Folds (he doesn’t) by arranging a staged autograph-plea that left two women nearby thinking he was a rock star. He got a phone number that night, but was more intrigued by the possibility of more elaborate put-ons.
Soon he was convincing six friends to stage the first No Pants Subway Ride. This would become IE’s signature annual event, drawing thousands of participants, but the first was modest. A covertly-shot video captures the kind of "what the –" bystander reaction that was clearly gratifying for Todd and his cohorts, fueling their desire to do things that were "weird for the sake of being weird."
In a straight chronological account, Todd and various roommates and collaborators recall highlights, from a fake U2 rooftop concert to a spontaneous line dance in a Virgin Megastore. Something of the group’s sense of on-the-spot fun may be lost in the telling, but this format does convey the slow growth of something that was already a phenomenon (with millions of YouTube views to its credit) by the time the media got wind of it.
When that happened, Todd was quickly approached by literary agents and TV producers. In a financially inevitable but philosophically dubious decision, he signed on to make a pilot for NBC — the pilot failed, but produced what may be IE’s most beautiful mission: hundreds of civilians suddenly freezing in place, scattered throughout Grand Central Station — holding a pose for five minutes amid the hustle and bustle, then springing back to life.
Increasing awareness has brought official invitations from institutions to stage pranks — the New York Public Library, for instance, allowed IE’s faux Ghostbusters to chase a bedsheet-draped poltergeist through their historic reading room. No one in the film seems curious where the line is between delightful, spontaneous creativity and ho-hum publicity stunt. But by the end of the film, many viewers will feel they’ve found it.