John is a sweet-natured computer geek who runs the technical side of his roommate Moe’s Internet porn site and lives a voyeur’s dream, watching dozens of streams of live sex acts for free. The idea is simple: anonymously pimp out employees to clients, connecting them by Web cam, and allow the user to make his (or her) hooker do whatever he wants. It’s clean and it’s safe, and it often makes for a very busy frame. It’s a wonder John doesn’t spend most of his time in On_Line complaining about eyestrain.
Instead, John (Josh Hamilton) devotes himself to psychoanalyzing the activities he observes each day, whether it be religiously watching AngelCam, a free Web site run by a random girl in her apartment, or pondering the sexual implications of mutual cybermasturbation. There are several important truths to be learned as John wanks his way to enlightenment, and chief among them is that nothing substitutes for reality. He looks longingly at Moe’s (Harold Perrineau) relationship with Moira (Isabel Gillies), while he himself is reduced to an imagined connection with one of his employees, Jordan (Vanessa Ferlito).
Meanwhile, over in Akron (everyone else lives in New York), young, gay, lonely Ed (Eric Millegan, who bears an odd resemblance to an Amadeus-wigged Tom Hulce) pays through the nose for the companionship of another of John and Moe’s moneymakers, Al (John Fleck). Naturally each of the lines of connection become interwoven in the movie’s final act as the Internet buddies all race against time to save one of their own from certain death.
There are two ways to look at On_Line. It’s either a compelling story of Internet tragedy and love lessons, or just a weak excuse for 90 minutes of people jerking off to Web cams with a dash of drama thrown in for distraction. There’s a strange stiffness to the performances, and while all of the characters are looking for something more than just a quick lay or self-gratification, when they finally get the whole package it feels entirely too easy. Much better if these individuals were destroyed by their lust in some sort of right-wing morality play, but this is a low-budget indie film, and that’s just not allowed. These days, happily ever after is offbeat enough to substitute for substance.
Opens Friday at the Madstone Theatre, Ann Arbor. Call 734-994-1000.
Erin Podolsky writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].