For some inexplicable reason, I find myself drawn more and more toward the documentary as a favorite form of entertainment. Now, let's be clear here, I'm talking genuine documentary, not some TV network exec's idea of "reality." Whether it's a visceral reaction to the seemingly ever-increasing amount of creative dross finding its way into my local multiplex or a byproduct of my finally growing up, the effect remains the same a well-made documentary can be far more entertaining than anything Hollywood can dream up.
Such a terrific case in point is "Startup.com," a dead-on look behind the curtain of the rise and fall of Internet entrepreneurs, There is not a moment of artificiality in this equally riveting and humorous, timely documentary. Nor is there even the slightest hint of staged reality to its subjects, Tom Herman and Kaleil Isaza Tuzman, two longtime, twentysomething friends who in the late '80s jumped on the Internet gravy train. Their ticket aboard that lucrative train was a service-based Web site called govWorks.com, where average Joes could pay parking tickets and do other time-consuming government business from home.
Tom is a single dad who resembles a young Kenny Loggins, complete with a touchy-feely, close-talker kind of demeanor meant to calm those he does business with. Kaleil on the other hand is Mr. Smooth, a beefy, gold-chain-wearing, ex-securities hotshot who never says the wrong thing. Their rags-to-riches-to-rags again story is captured on digital camera with simple clarity. You'll sit captivated as these two yuppie Internet archetypes pitch their concept to investors, watch their company balloon from a handful of dedicated pals to a staff of 250, and then agonize and attack each other as it falls apart.
Unlike the endless stories in "The Wall Street Journal" or even the nightly news, "Startup.com" successfully puts a human face on those tumbling NASDAQ numbers and the young entrepreneurs who raised tens of millions of dollars to fund Web-based projects. Helping fuel their prideful fall: greed, lack of business experience and a stock-market crash. Like countless other dot-commers, after the initial rush of enthusiasm and investors, Tom and Kaleil encounter problems with cash flow, competition and personnel. But don't get me wrong, "Startup.com" is not some bloodless timeline. Far from it.
There's suspense: The clock is ticking down on a $17 million investment, and the guys can't find their lawyer.
There's danger: Who would want to burglarize their offices?
There's confrontation: With everything on the line, friendship flies out the window as Kaleil has to fire Tom!
And there's humor: Well, there's so much spontaneous humor in "Startup.com" it threatens to undermine the seriousness of the film's topic. At times, the encounters between Tom and Kaleil or with investors and co-workers unfold like scenes from the next Christopher ("Best In Show") Guest "mockumentary." Kaleil leads the govWorks.com staff in morning cheers. Tom takes them to his parents' camp where they're forced to sing and meditate on command.
The film is caught on tape by Chris Hegedus and producer D.A. Pennebaker, who are also responsible for 1994's Oscar-nominated "The War Room." Joining them as co-director is ex-MTV producer Jehane Noujaim, who as Kaleil's roommate allows the filmmakers 24/7 access.
"Startup,com" is no fairy tale where lessons are learned and everyone comes out a better person. But the sheer unlikability of Tom and Kaleil somehow adds to the timeliness of the cultural phenom the filmmakers are trying to illuminate. Without apology, Hegedus and Pennebaker focus their cameras on two extremely unsympathetic heroes. Even when their world is disintegrating, the two can't help but be aware of their "celebrity." Which speaks directly to the core of what's wrong with those "staged" reality TV shows choking the airwaves. The "real" people are always playing to the ever-present camera. They either never let their guard down to give us even the hint of a genuine moment or they're simply shallow people without substance.
You wont' leave "Startup.com" liking Tom and Kaleil. But what you will take away is an unforgettable portrait of a testosterone-driven decade.
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