The Real Cancun

“The Real Cancun” successfully pulls out the entertaining aspects of MTV’s “Real World” program and leaves behind the less-appealing elements, like the face-the-camera confessionals and the casting of opposites who are bound to hate each other so we can watch them fight.

There is fighting in “The Real Cancun,” but it seems to arise naturally from the situations, and not because producers intentionally found, say, a black man and a white supremacist and made them share a bedroom. Instead, “Cancun” allows people to be more or less themselves — at times moronic, despicable and laughable, but always, if nothing else, human.

Sixteen college-aged lovelies were sent to Cancun for spring break 2003 — a record-setting mere five weeks before the film was released — put up in cool digs, given plenty of booze money, and let loose. (When cameras are filming everything, you want to make sure there’s plenty of everything to film.) It is, essentially, “The Real World,” except the nudity goes unblurred and the profanity unbleeped.

Kudos to the filmmakers — I stop just short of calling them documentarians — for knowing how to assemble a reality-based film. Thanks to smart editing, the best characters come to the foreground while the people who ought to remain as supporting, comic-relief types stay in the back. We take this for granted, but with seven days’ worth of footage, the film could have been edited to make any one of the 16 emerge as protagonist.

The central figure turns out to be Alan, an 18-year-old who has never drunk and never had sex, and whose bold assertions that he wants to do both sound sweetly insincere. He has no religious or personal reasons for avoiding booze and booty up to this point; he has simply not had enough confidence to acquire them, despite being handsome, athletic and pleasant enough.

When he tells the others that he plans not to drink during the week, they are stunned. I mean, absolutely STUNNED. They cannot IMAGINE such a thing. I find it both funny and sad that the idea of an 18-year-old NOT spending spring break in a haze can produce such flabbergastment.

In another time, and from another source, this movie might have had Alan succeed in his abstinence. But it is 2003, and MTV, and of course he succumbs. He drinks, and he drinks a lot. Yet he remains, for a while, no more confident than he was. He barges around shouting, “I want boobies!,” but during his close encounters with women, he remains naively terrified.

For a while, anyway. Gradually, he gains his footing and achieves some social success, though whether or not he ever has sex I will leave as a surprise. It’s not what I would call heartwarming, but it’s certainly interesting to note his ascent — or is it a descent? — into being a full-fledged frat-boy party animal. He begins as a genuine, nice guy. By the end, he’s like everyone else. We’re witnessing the making of a tool.

The other characters pale in comparison, though their stories are frequently very, very funny. Casey says he’s a model and spends a lot of time asking women to get naked with him. Jeremy claims, “Girls go on spring break to find guys like me,” and before long he has bedded housemate Laura (despite having a girlfriend back home), dumped her, and moved on to others. Dave and Heidi have been platonic friends for years, but clearly there is sexual tension between them. Matt and Sarah first connect after she is stung by a jellyfish and he urinates on the wound to heal it. (Thanks to editing and music, this scene is made to seem mockingly romantic.)

We’re loath to admit it, but reality TV shows, when they are well-done, offer fascinating glimpses into the way people are. It’s not true documentary work — true documentaries study the monkeys the way they already are, while reality shows put the monkeys in wacky situations first — but there is an art to it. “The Real Cancun” demonstrates what entertainment (and even a tiny bit of insight) can be derived from watching our fellow monkeys at their most unguarded.

B (1 hr., 30 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity and sexual dialogue, a lot of nudity, abundant drinking and partying, some very strong sexuality.)