Not Cool (2014)

My World Of Flops is Nathan Rabin’s survey of books, television shows, musical releases, or other forms of entertainment that were financial flops, critical failures, or lack a substantial cult following.

YouTube has been a ubiquitous, massively influential cultural force for a good decade, yet its homegrown superstars remain confined to a pop-culture ghetto. Teenagers and tweens worship the format’s cute, accessible Justin Bieber clones who have earned a vast fortune making goofy comedy videos and makeup tutorials and drunken cooking shows and other assorted online ephemera. Yet the entertainment establishment still seems to view the whole scene as a dumb fad.

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It does not help that some of YouTube’s biggest stars are best known for being irritating, like Lucas Cruikshank’s screechingly obnoxious Fred Figglehorn, who was sadistically gifted his own film trilogy, which skipped theaters in the United States. Other movies starring YouTube gods have similarly been released quietly to fans via home video and online streaming. The whole movement still lacks a breakout movie that would prove to Hollywood that YouTube superstars are more than just a way for 11-year-olds to waste time.

The riveting 2014 Starz reality competition The Chair consequently constituted two experiments. On one level, the show was about what happens when the same screenplay—in this case a coming-of-age romantic comedy—is given to two very different filmmakers to make a movie with many of the same producers in the same city. The filmmakers are Anna Martemucci, an adorably neurotic independent filmmaker, and Shane Dawson, a controversial YouTube superstar with 10 million followers as well as an unfortunate love of racist, sexist, and homophobic stereotypes. On another level, The Chair was about whether a man who has achieved astonishing success with homemade videos can transition to making movies for a general audience. Can a YouTube star become a real filmmaker?

There’s a moment late in The Chair that indelibly captures the curious professional state Dawson is in. He travels to VidCon, the big festival for YouTube superstars and their most obsessive fans. He poses for photos with a pained, forced smile while 12-year-old girls who grew up on his work weep, overwhelmed by being in the presence of their hero. Yet as he reflects on camera, the minute the convention ends, he’s thrust back into a world where most people have no idea who he is.

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Dawson seizes upon The Chair as an opportunity to prove himself to the Hollywood establishment. It was intended as a springboard to a film career as a director and a star. The upside and the downside were both huge. Dawson wouldn’t just be judged on the movie that he made. He’d also be judged on how he conducted himself on set, how he interacted with collaborators, and how he handled being the star of a reality competition. The show doubled as an involved, onscreen audition for any future work.

Shane Dawson in The Chair

Every possibly humanizing moment Dawson experiences on The Chair happens in front of a camera. He emerges as a moody man-child who rages and pouts with bratty indignation when the Pittsburgh acting community doesn’t rush to fill roles in his debut because it contains elements like feces-eating and glory holes. Dawson is told that some of the film’s content is offensive to everyone, but he fights for the film to retain its poop-eating with a solemn seriousness. He seems to have an iPhone where his soul should be.

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Dawson’s resulting film, Not Cool, has the distinction of being one of only a handful of films awarded a single point on Metacritic. That one point is on a 0-to-100 scale, so the only other films to have scored so low include all-time-worst dreck like Inappropriate Comedy, Bio-Dome, and The Human Centipede III.

I consequently expected so little from Not Cool that, honestly, I was borderline blown away that the film was even in focus. I was dreading a movie that would be an atrocity on the order of Movie 43. This is, after all, a movie so dire-looking that the filmmakers had a hard time even getting a prostitute to work on it anonymously. Zachary Quinto, a producer on the show who insisted that his name be taken off of Not Cool, angrily condemned this movie on moral, creative, and aesthetic grounds. Quinto, and many critics, saw Not Cool as a film that was not just bad, but hateful.

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At the risk of giving this sad little orphan the faintest of faint praise, Not Cool isn’t nearly as awful as I had anticipated. There is a blandly competent, even mediocre coming-of-age teen comedy buried somewhere deep within Not Cool, but you’d have to wade through a sewer of gags about bodily fluids, racist jokes, and embarrassingly broad mugging to get to it. Unless you’re riveted by The Chair or a Dawson superfan, it’s not worth the effort.

Dawson is miscast as protagonist Scott, a photographer who was the super-cool prom king in high school, yet returns to his hometown on break from college lost and adrift. He is particularly bummed after being dumped by his girlfriend, Beth. In the original script, Beth was a relatively grounded character, but Dawson transformed her into an oversexed, crazy-eyed she-devil who breaks up with Scott through a glory hole in a men’s bathroom.

Before we can even get to the glory hole, we’re introduced to Scott’s world through an opening party sequence that conveys the film’s tone all too effectively. In rapid succession, the film lovingly races through gags rooted in fat-shaming; slut-shaming (sometimes at the same time, like when an overweight, drunken, and soon-to-vomit woman tweets about needing to get STUFFED that Thanksgiving); homophobia; casual racism; and the most sympathetic, multidimensional character (sassy female lead Tori) being vomited upon just before the credits hit. If Dawson was deliberately trying to offend and alienate anyone who isn’t already a fan, he succeeds wildly. He’s intent on realizing his scatological vision at all costs, but in the first few minutes alone, Dawson gives critics and a public that already has ample reason to be skeptical of him all the justification they need to write him off.

Dawson has been called out repeatedly for racist stereotypes, yet that somehow hasn’t kept him from thinking that a joke involving an overweight, black homeless man eating his own feces is so explosively funny and so crucial that he’s willing to seemingly fight to the death over it. The poop-eating joke figures hugely in The Chair; in Not Cool, it barely registers. Dawson seems to think it’s his American Pie pie-fucking bit or the ejaculate hairspray gag in There’s Something About Mary. Instead, it’s a hateful, racist lowbrow joke in a film overflowing with them.

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Yet, the elements Dawson is least confident about come across the strongest. Dawson is definitely miscast; nothing about him screams “popular high school student,” but the insecurity and self-doubt Dawson brings to the role work in this context. Cherami Leigh is even better as love interest Tori. Leigh isn’t playing a human being so much as she’s playing an immediately recognizable type: a Juno/Daria-style smartass whose sardonic wisecracks and sarcastic one-liners mask underlying vulnerability. There’s nothing remotely original about the character, but Leigh is sassy and appealing, and newcomer Drew Monson, another YouTube veteran, channels a young Crispin Glover as Joel, a gangly eccentric with a crush on Scott’s sister.

Producer Chris Moore, who nailed the raunchy/emotional tone more successfully with American Pie, surrounds Dawson with polished pros who help the film look and feel slicker and more professional than The Chair would suggest. Yet Dawson can’t stop sabotaging himself. The “wacky” characters here yell their lines at deafening volumes, lurch about in ways seemingly designed to replicate the jump-cut-riddled, short-attention-span aesthetic of YouTube comedy videos, and stop just short of frothing at the mouth and wearing straitjackets to convey how crazy they are.

Dawson plays a few of these grotesques himself, most notably a horny old Jewish woman driver and a dizzy, oversexed party girl. Removing these characters would be an easy way to make the film better, but Dawson doesn’t trust himself as an actor to be funny without the huge physical comedy and bigotry-based humor that made him rich and famous. So he’s made a weird hybrid that’s 80 percent surprisingly professional-looking generic teen movie and 20 percent brazenly offensive, amateurish YouTube-style nonsense.

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Dawson begins The Chair and the process of filming Not Cool clearly eager to impress the powerful, sophisticated, continental Zachary Quintos of the world and escape a world where he only matters to screaming tween girls. He ends the film taking comfort in the knowledge that, yes, Zachary Quinto despises his work with an extremely public intensity, but at least 12-year-old girls are still laughing at his poop jokes. This helps explain the film’s commercial failure: No one should see Not Cool, but especially no one under the age of 17. The vast majority of Dawson’s fans are likely much younger than that.

At that point, it’s hard not to feel for Dawson. He worked hard to make a movie that wasn’t just panned, it was eviscerated and made almost no money despite his incredible popularity. Yet, the movie won The Chair competition anyway, and with it the $250,000 prize. It seems very show-business that the bad guy ended up winning and true to independent film that the winner still ended up losing big time. And the documentary competition established him as a fascinating, complicated, extremely driven, and focused young man, but also a thin-skinned, sometimes cruel, narcissistic, and overconfident neophyte.

The Chair has a lot to teach hungry, aspiring filmmakers about the brutal realities of film and any collaborative medium where art and commerce clash. But no one can learn more from it than Dawson himself. He set out to be the YouTube world’s first big crossover success in the mainstream film world. Instead, his story, and particularly his film, stand as a harrowing cautionary tale. There is a riveting, funny, sad, and extremely compelling coming-of-age story in this saga, but it belongs not to Scott, but to a deeply unlikable yet fascinating character like Dawson.

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Failure, Fiasco, or Secret Success: Fiasco