To begin, I’ll remind you that you shouldn’t judge a movie by its trailer. The preview makes this film look like a sort of stunt-doc mixed with a getting-lost-so-you-can-find-yourself flick. Sure, it is a bit of a stunt, but really it’s more of a gonzo anthropological experiment that checks the pulse of community in America. Is community alive, or have tough financial times reverted society back to an “every man for himself” mentality? Filmmaker Joe Garner took an interesting approach to these questions. To find out, he set out on a month-long trip with nothing more than a phone, laptop, a toothbrush, and the clothes on his back. His plan? To get everything he needed from Craigslist – America’s digital town square.
The film wastes no time in getting down to business. The premise was simple, and therefore only required a brief explanation before diving right in to the experiment. After a quick goodbye and goodluck from his family and friends in LA, the film cuts straight to Joe sitting on a park bench with his laptop on day one — perhaps one of the toughest days of the entire trip. The first scene sets the format for the rest of the film: Joe finds himself in a rut, and when it seems that all hope is lost and he’s doomed to fail, a random savior is sent from Craigslist to lend a helping hand. As he travels across the country to cities like Portland, Seattle, Chicago, and New Orleans, this format remained constant.
The trials and tribulations Joe went through made for an engaging narrative. The film’s dramatic tension came from two places: The first was the overarching concern that Joe’s experiment might fail, and thus prove that community is either dead or dying. The second source of tension came from the general uncertainty of where he’d end up next, and how he’d get there. The doc offered up a steady flow of this second type of tension, which kept the film exciting from scene to scene. The problem was that the film never built enough of the first type of tension — we rarely got the idea that Joe might actually fail. This is because his adventure appeared to have gone off without a hitch. So often was Joe met with friendly and accommodating strangers that we rarely saw him in times of hardship. Even when Joe did hit a rough spot, editors were often too quick to cut to the moment where he’s saved, so we never really got a chance to develop genuine concern for his fate. This made the doc feel like more of a happy-go-lucky road-trip than the risky and bold adventure it probably was.
If the film was seeking to show how overwhelmingly generous most people are, it certainly did it’s job. However, I often found myself wondering if this abundance of generosity came as a result of Joe being filmed at all times. People were surely more willing to help him out once they realized they might be on TV or in a movie. That being said, however, it appears that Joe made a point of not mentioning his experiment in Craigslist posts and responses to ads, which suggests that most people were willing to meet up with him before they knew they would be filmed.
But even with the legitimizing effect of being in front of a camera, Joe was a mediocre narrator and guide. The film played out like a lengthy episode of Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, but with more of a youthful, homeless, hobo-esque vibe to it. Unlike Bourdain however, Joe’s commentary throughout the film was relatively bland. Despite being a very friendly, honest, and compassionate guy, his narration and musings didn’t add much to the film. This wasn’t a huge problem though, as Joe’s strengths were in a different area. In all of his encounters, he was definitely a far better interviewer and conversationalist than he was a commentator. With each new person he met along the way, Joe managed to tease out some kind of highly interesting perspective on life. This seemed to shift the focus of the film away from Joe himself, and onto the ‘slice of life’ stories that help us get a sense of what the Craigslist community is like.
Craigslist Joe also excelled at evoking emotion with its soundtrack. The original music composed by David Garner complimented many scenes in a big way, and helped deepen the emotion in most cases. While overall it was well-executed, in some situations it almost felt overdone — like the music was telling us how to feel and suggesting how to respond to what was happening onscreen. Scenes like this were a small exception though, and overall the music blended well with the action.
All things considered, this film is definitely worth a watch. If you’ve ever used Craigslist for any type of service, you’re sure to be entertained by all of Joe’s strange encounters. It will definitely rid your mind of the notion that the world outside your doorstep is cold and uncaring, and likely leave you craving adventure. At the end of the film, I could have easily been convinced to fill up a backpack and hitchhike across the country. The doc definitely has a few flaws, but they are mostly overshadowed by its numerous strengths.