A Hilariously Playful Tribute To Cinema With An Amazing Cast
Jan 10, 2023
Hosted by Helen Mirren, the venerable public television staple “Documentary Now!” enters its 53rd season. Or so goes the running joke that ties together the fourth season of the satirical IFC comedy, back after a nearly four-year hiatus. Although Bill Hader, now in his “Barry” era, is no longer a part of the show, co-creator and star Fred Armisen remains as hilarious as ever with a top-notch troupe of guest stars that had me in stitches throughout the six-episode season.
The first episode features Alexander Skarsgård (“The Northman”) as iconoclastic filmmaker Rainier Wolz as he looks back on his time shooting both a documentary about the indigenous people who live in Russia’s Ular Mountains (not real) and the pilot episode of a CBS sitcom called “Bachelor Nanny” (also not real). Skarsgård is a hoot doing his best Werner Herzog, adopting a thick German accent and deadpan line delivery while giving script notes to the head of CBS comedy (Armisen) as if it was the most spiritual of tasks.
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In the second part of the episode, a delightfully unhinged August Deihl (“A Hidden Life”) arrives in a fury as Wolz’s longtime collaborator Deiter to take over the lead role in the sitcom. Their “profound but complicated kinship” is a riff on that of Herzog and problematic actor Klaus Kinski. The absurdity of doing a “Burden of Dreams” style documentary about the making of a cheesy ’80s sitcom in a remote wilderness is as hysterical as you hope it will be.
The cinematography of the episode, titled “Soldier of Illusion”, captures the elegant, yet faded film grain imagery of Les Blank, which serves to highlight even further just how ludicrous the episode is. Each subsequent episode similarly captures the nuance of different documentary styles to play up this same playful chiding of the inspirational texts.
One episode stars Harriet Walter (“Succession”) as the proprietress of a salon in Northern England with Cate Blanchett (“Tár”) as her bumbling assistant. Like Philippa Lowthorpe’s 1994 docusoap “Three Salons At The Seaside” mixed with the plot of “The September Issue,” writer Seth Meyers finds mordant humor in the mundanity with which the widows who patronize the salon deal with a seemingly endless supply of trauma and death.
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Staying in the British Isles, “How They Threw Rocks” is a tribute to both the seminal sports doc “When We Were Kings” and also certain preposterous aspects of Welsh culture. Featuring game performances from Welsh actors Trystan Gravelle (“Lord of The Rings: The Rings of Power”), Jonathan Pryce (“The Two Popes”), and John Rhys-Davies (“Raiders of the Lost Ark”), the episode reminded me of how funny I find any sports doc as someone who is not a fan of sports in general. The fanaticism, the single-minded drive, the absurd feats of strength. It’s got it all.
Possibly the most successful episode in terms of satire, “My Monkey Grifter” lampoons the latest slate of bad Netflix docs. Although the streamer has put out great docs like “American Factory” and “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” it seems the worst of its output tends to be the most popular with viewers (and, unfortunately, sometimes Academy voters). Taking aim at the wildly popular docs “My Octopus Teacher” and “Tiger King,” Jamie Demetriou (“The Afterparty) stars as filmmaker, and undeniable creep, Benjamin Clay whose entire life falls apart when he falls in love with a monkey named Lulu who also happens to be an unrepentant grifter. The worst thing about this is if this story were real Netflix absolutely would make this doc and it would be filmed with just as much sincerity and lack of visual acumen as the episode — and probably become its most-watched film of the year. Bleak.
The final doc, “Trouver Frisson” pays homage to the late Agnès Varda. A little bit “Gleaners and I” and a little bit “Beaches of Agnès,” the episode captures her energy and unique humor perfectly. French actress Liliane Rovère (“Call My Agent”) nails Varda’s impish persona as the fictional filmmaker Ida Leos. As a certified Varda-head, I was majorly impressed by the attention to detail in recreating her Cine Tamaris logo, which features a feisty black (here the company is called Cinema Felin).
Written by Matt Pacult and Tamsin Rawady, this episode follows Ida as she leaves her apartment while the landlord deals with black mold (which she of course finds beautiful) in search of frisson – or the goosebumps that come with true excitement and wonder. Ida’s grace towards the Jean-Luc Godard stand-in Pierre Mulard (Ronald Guttman) is in conversation with his real-life treatment of Varda at the end of “Faces Places” (you rat!). Given Godard’s recent passing, this sequence is likely to engender many tears for fans of these pioneers of cinema. The writers are so in sync with Varda’s style that it transcends mockumentary, and feels more like a lost Varda short.
Overall, this season of “Documentary Now!” is not only a loving, yet playful tribute to the documentaries of yore, it also reminded me why I love documentary cinema so much. The format of interrogating life through probing questions, through sifted memory, and through real-time recording is enthralling and can make the most ordinary subjects extraordinary. It can also be emotionally manipulative trash, which this season also reminds its viewers. While familiarity with the inspirations behind the episodes will likely enrich the experience, it isn’t required to enjoy the magical whimsy. I hope Armisen and Meyers do actually make it to 53 seasons someday. [B+]
“Documentary Now!” Season 4 debuts on IFC on October 19.
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