It’s hard to know what to make of Viral Beauty from the start. At first blush, it appears to be a straightforward comedy: the first act of the film introduces a mess of a woman named Marsha Day, who posts an online dating profile requesting only the highest caliber of men. Her demands that only fit, well-educated, attractive, financially stable men apply are in obvious contrast to her own setting from her parents’ home Staten Island where she works as a barista. Viewer response within the movie reflects our own as the audience, ranging from a laugh of indignation to a point-by-point breakdown of everything wrong with Marsha. How dare she, of all people, make requirements? From a viewer’s perspective, such audacity is enough to make someone an asshole. And to be widely perceived an asshole is one of several tipping points in internet culture.
It’s that culture that Viral Beauty exemplifies, showing Marsha’s life from perspectives both inside and outside the internet. Marsha becomes a star for the wrong reasons, akin to Rebecca Black, William Hung, or Honey Boo Boo. Ridicule and cyber bullying are a form of stardom nonetheless though, so Marsha finds herself with a six-figure offer from a talent agent to hock products in her YouTube videos, and her story rollercoasters from there in an over-the-top look at internet praise, bullying, and bandwagon culture. Viewers alternate between pouring on extreme, obsessive love or bullying, dehumanizing hate, and we see celebrity culture in raw form. It’s the worship of fame, and the monsters it creates — not just of the stars themselves, but also of the consumers who gradually and inevitably see them less as people and more as insentient products. The more subscribers, the brighter her star; the brighter her star, the less she’s a person; the less she’s a person, the more she belongs to the people to treat her however we feel she deserves.
If you’re expecting Eighth Grade, Bo Burnham’s exploration of modern social media culture for young people, your expectations will prove a weird pivot from what Viral Beauty is. Viral Beauty is to Eighth Grade‘s approach to social media what Rick & Morty is to, say, BoJack Horseman: a more weirder evolution of an already unique approach to nihilism. Internet stardom is the main focus, and the film’s most potent feature is its portrayal of internet fame as a double-edged sword that swings at lightning speed. Celebrity status happens fast, and there’s a thin line between audience love and hate as we see Marsha’s rise and fall. Meanwhile, there’s an inverse relationship between Marsha’s humanity and her life as public domain — an unfeeling product that belongs to the people. By its end, Viral Beauty will make you wonder whether a YouTube star’s life is a better one in the “good” times or the “bad.”
Overall, Viral Beauty is a cringe comedy that gives a rare, honest look at what it looks like when our candor, cloaked in anonymity, becomes monstrous. Whether the film is for you depends on your relationship to cringe humor and your familiarity with, and interest in, internet celebrity culture. Your parents might not understand the first place to even start in understanding Viral Beauty, but this much is assured: the empathy you feel for Marsha and the feelings you have toward the film will change from beginning to end. And its ending, like much of the movie’s cringe moments, has a depth of sadness beneath a veneer of polish. Perhaps that’s the best summary of this trend of social media commentary and explorations behind the scenes of celebrity. It can be hard to watch. And maybe it should be.
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