Y'All Don't Know What It's Like (To Love Somebody)

Kevin and Britney in a hot, dispassionate embrace

Who doesn't love a celebrity in decline, insecurities laid bare on the flickering screen or glossy tabloid overleaf? These days, Nick Nolte is better known for his ghastly 2002 mug shot than for his dramatic achievements. Pauly Shore recently chronicled his own symbolic demise in Pauly Shore Is Dead, a harmless exercise in sub-Malkovich metahumor. The Surreal Life has made a bleak cottage industry out of exploiting stars who've been forcibly jettisoned from the firmament. Suddenly, what's cold is hot: Has-beens are so right now.

Lots of celebrities past their prime are ambivalent, even sanguine about their loss of status (Christopher "Peter Brady" Knight, Gary Coleman, Vince Neil). Some cut their losses and reinvent themselves as humbled religious crusaders (Willie Aames, Hammer, the repentant Baldwin brother). Some attempt to capitalize on that last vestige of fame--Corey Haim even sold a clump of his own hair on eBay in 2001, making it possible for future License to Drive fans to clone their idol and confine him in a lush prehistoric theme park.

But the saddest subclass of celebs in decline are those who don't yet realize they've slipped. They carry on as if they were still in their prime, peacocking shamelessly in ever-tightening britches, convinced that they haven't lost a single fan since that hit single dropped in '98. Britney Spears, the stankest Louisiana export since the crawdaddy, is one of these deluded souls.

Britney and Kevin: Chaotic is a schizophrenic, loosely edited collection of footage taken by Britney herself on her 2004 Onyx Hotel tour. The show purports to document the beginning of Britney's relationship with her now-husband Kevin Federline, who appears to style his hair with nonstick cooking spray and shop exclusively at a store called Real Big Undershirtz. Those of us with US Weekly subscriptions know a Federline fetus is currently pimpin' out in Britney's amniotic Jacuzzi; let's hope Junior never watches this mortifying exercise in narcissism. It's bad enough knowing your parents did it--imagine hearing a younger incarnation of Mom boast, "I had sex three times today!" accompanied by footage of Dad taking a post-coital shower.

Early on, Chaotic made me queasy, and not just because of Brit's locker-room talk. The handheld camera is disorienting, and Britney unwittingly pays homage to The Blair Witch Project by filming endless close-ups of her own nostrils. When Britney starts pestering her various staffers and sycophants about their favorite sexual positions and their opinions about marriage, a different kind of nausea sets in. This is Madonna's Truth or Dare without the star power, the sexual know-how, or the disgruntled Warren Beatty cameo. The prevailing mood is one of desperation--Britney comes off like a love-starved seventh-grader, squealing over the seemingly ambivalent Federline in a drawl that drips with roadside honey. Meanwhile, members of her entourage bray with laughter at every joke she cracks. Perhaps if they were off the payroll they'd have the chutzpah to inform her that a) she's not funny; b) Federline's a clown; and c) when it comes to bimbo charisma, she's no Jessica Simpson.

The footage is interspersed with Real World-style "confessional" footage that appears to have been shot recently, as Britney is sporting some spectacular prenatal cleavage that makes me nostalgic for those late-'90s implant rumors. Looking vaguely Kirstie Alley-esque in flowing silk robes, this soft-focus Britney comments on the show with camera-ready composure that stands in stark contrast to the "raw" Britney in the handheld footage. The stylists are still capable of making Britney look like the illusory blond teen who appeared on countless magazine covers a few years ago, but suddenly the effect is far less convincing now that we've seen the bag of tricks. In fact, at least 75 percent of Chaotic is composed of footage of Britney being primped by her handlers, and there always seems to be some unseen lackey daubing foundation on her skin or spritzing her hair. Britney, clearly accustomed to being fussed over, doesn't even blink when a stylist lunges at her with a mascara wand. It all smacks of routine preventive maintenance--or the tireless grooming of a cash cow.

The interaction between Britney and her beloved is perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the aptly named Chaotic. Federline seems less than smitten with his new girlfriend, and when she asks him who his fantasy sex partner would be, he surveys the room and wittily replies, "None of y'all." Undaunted, Britney follows him around with her trusty camera, waiting patiently for him to return one of her many effusive compliments. (He doesn't.) When Britney asks him, "What are your thoughts on marriage and commitment?" Federline stalls a bit, then finally admits, "I don't believe in marriage." It's an unsurprising response from a man who, at the time, was expecting his second child with another woman (celebrity babymama Shar Jackson), and one wonders what happened between then and now to convince Federline to wed Britney and impregnate her months later. (The cynical reply involves money, but let's try to keep a rosy outlook, y'all!)

Yes, life is but a bowl of busted cherries in the Britney microcosm. Sadly, Britney seems blissfully unaware of the extensive damage her career has sustained in the past year. At least the "celebreality" stars over on VH1 cop to their own failings; it would have been refreshing to see Britney talk candidly about her finances or goals, rather than simply mooning over some guy. If this is the soundproof bubble of privilege--and denial--that some celebrities exist within, then we're all better off on the outside.

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