In truth, is there a person alive who hasn’t received a spam email? Honestly, I get hundreds of them a week – I’ve gone to some lengths to cultivate an online presence, and, as such, I’m available through several different outlets. Occasionally out of curiosity I do read one or two a bit more closely. In some ways, I see that like being a motorist driving past a car accident: sometimes, you just can’t help but gawk. It’s interesting to see what scam artists think will convince you that their efforts are legitimate (as opposed to the thousands of others emails that went worldwide that day). Naturally, I (like you) have heard the horror stories – the urban legends – of folks (usually the elderly) who’ve been duped into acting on one or more of these cyberspace messages. I would only add I hope to never come face-to-face with one who has been scammed because – God forgive me – I might point and laugh.
(NOTE: The following review will contain minor spoilers necessary solely for the discussion of plot and/or characters. If you’re the type of reader who prefers a review entirely spoiler-free, then I’d encourage you to skip down to the last three paragraphs for my final assessment. If, however, you’re accepting of a few modest hints at ‘things to come,’ then read on …)
Mike (curiously played by a man named Mike Ivers) is an out-of-work New York actor who met a charming South African “businessman” in a bar and wired him money in hopes of seeing a huge return on his investment. As you guessed it (why didn’t Mike?), the entire thing was a scam, and the young man lost over $30,000. Ned (filmmaker Ned Thorne) and Scott (Scott Kerns – I’m seeing a pattern here) are his best friends, and, as such, they decide to help him get his life back on track … by agreeing to take him to South Africa in pursuit of the scam artist.
Uh … really?
Pardon me for sounding more than a touch cynical (I’m good at it, I’m told), but what kinds of friends would want to take a ‘bestie’ halfway around the world to South Africa (of all places) in hopes of righting an internet wrong? I’ll admit that I find the premise behind the clever fake documentary 419 less than ‘realistic,’ but based entirely on some good word-of-mouth from the film festival circuit I thought it would be worth a spin. I figured at 84 minutes it couldn’t be all that bad or, if it was, at least it wouldn’t last long.
To my surprise, I was mildly captivated by the tale of three grown adolescents still trying to find themselves taking the shape of curiously misguided ‘vision quest,’ but I have seen far worse. Despite promising up “twists and turns up to the very end” in its product packaging, most of the film is pretty benign: think three male pals trying to come together on mankind’s worst road trip E-V-E-R (without any laughter), and I think you get the gist. It isn’t hard to see Ivers, Thorne, and Kerns as buddies, and – despite my reservations with the premise – the strung together plot works mostly because there is no intellectual weight attached to most of this. You got three guys. You got three cameras. You put it together with a noir-infused crime plot, and you don’t do half bad.
As anyone would’ve (or should’ve) expected, things don’t quite go as planned with the men arrive in South Africa, but that’s the stuff of drama. And, to be perfectly clear, there is drama in here. It’s available in small doses, but it’s there. And it’s well played.
Also to provide some clarification, I have read elsewhere on the web that 419 is being billed as one of those semi-popular “found footage films,” and I’d like to correct that misinformation: it isn’t. 419 is a faux documentary, and, yes, it’s put together with footage that – in some part – has been “found.” But to call it a “found footage film” is a disservice to “found footage films” as well as 419: this is a character drama – entirely fictional – put together in such a way as to tweak the narrative. It’s a fine line distinction, but a distinction that should be make.
419  is produced by 120bB Films and Indalo Productions. DVD distribution is being handled by MVD Visual, a division of MVD Entertainment Group. As for the technical specifications … well, bear in mind that Thorne wants to make you believe this is all a documentary culled together from found footage, so one should expect the usual shaky-cam action consistently from start to finish, along with some of the usual unframed shot, loss of focus, and questionable angle choices. (Relax, folks, because it’s all intended to be part of the charm.) The sound was mostly solid, though there were a few sequences that came across a bit muddled. As for special features, the only thing I saw on the menu was deleted scenes, and, at that point, I really wasn’t all that interested in what didn’t make the finished product.
RECOMMENDED but – seriously – don’t look for anything groundbreaking here. Essentially, all 419 really does effectively is provide audiences with yet one more reminder about what everyone says could happen to you if you’re rope into an internet scam but it’s necessarily escalated to the Nth degree for the purposes of having a greater story to tell. Performances are fine; cinematography wasn’t all that inspiring but is tolerable (though the herky-jerky documentary style does get old in the final third); and the story is – well – a bit predictable. (Don’t believe everything the box art tells you.)
In the interests of fairness, I’m pleased to disclose that the fine folks at MVD Entertainment Group provided me with a DVD copy of 419 by request for the expressed purposes of completing this review.