The cinematic debut of British street artist Banksy often plays like some meta thing that only Charlie Kaufman could dream up, even though it is supposedly a documentary about the scene's most prominent figures. Here's the story: Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman who owned a vintage clothing store in Los Angeles, had been running around with a video camera fiendishly capturing everything around him. He didn't fixate on any particular subject until he saw what his cousin, street artist Space Invader, was up to. With Space Invader's introduction, Guetta quickly ingratiated himself with the various underground artists by tirelessly filming them at work. (Shepard Fairey, responsible for the "Hope" poster that turned Barack Obama into an instant icon, was among his subjects.) Guetta was never serious about assembling the massive amount of footage into a documentary, though, and instead he fashioned himself as an overnight street-art sensation known as Mr. Brainwash. In stepped Banksy—the elusive artist who famously defaced the West Bank barrier—to turn the camera on Guetta, and the result is Exit Through the Gift Shop.
While the daredevil hijinks documented here are thoroughly amusing and entirely plausible, Banksy leaves unanswered too many lingering questions essential to establishing the documentary's credibility: How did he obtain Guetta's stash of footage? Who conducted the interviews? Who was behind the camera for any given scene? Why would Guetta cooperate if the documentary exposes him as a fraud? Given that the film is so conveniently comprehensive and both its protagonists are unreliable, a viewer has no choice but to suspect Exit Through the Gift Shop to be a hoax—like Fatboy Slim's "Praise You" video, shot as an amateurish home video featuring the fictitious Torrance Community Dance Group and director Spike Jonze performing under the guise of choreographer Richard Koufay. If the film is indeed a hoax, it is certainly an elaborate one. Mr. Brainwash was the subject of an L.A. Weekly cover story June 12, 2008. He also designed the cover of Madonna's "Celebration" compilation.
The message within Exit Through the Gift Shop—how hype, celebrity and commerce often overshadow substance and actual talent—isn't exactly new. But the movie's prevailing hilarity really distracts from that moral of the story. So the film's value hinges on whether it's more than a post-postmodern performance-art installation intended solely to get its point across. It's too good to be true—but it's better if it's true. R.
Opens Friday at Fox Tower.