‘Documentary Now!’ review: The comfort we’ve been waiting for
By Mike Hale
Since “Documentary Now!” was last on the air in 2019, we have experienced a murderous pandemic and a corresponding rise in popularity for comedies that put a thin crust of conflict over a comforting stew of banality and audience flattery. (You shall know them by their Emmys.)
“Documentary Now!,” IFC’s quirky and loving simulation of a public-television documentary series, was offering comfort before we knew we needed it. But rather than pander, it inspires happiness simply through its unbounded affection for its material. (Also, it’s hard to pander when only a small fraction of your potential audience has seen the films you’re sending up.)
John Mulaney, a frequent writer for the series, summed up the show’s appeal when he referred to the making of the Season 3 episode “Original Cast Album: Co-op” (inspired by D.A. Pennebaker’s “Original Cast Album: Company”) as “that party we had.” The party resumes Wednesday with the long delayed premiere of the show’s fourth season, which, in keeping with the slowly grinding nature of public TV, is referred to onscreen — by its solemn host, Helen Mirren — as Season 53.
The show was created in 2015 by a “Saturday Night Live”-associated quartet, Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers and Rhys Thomas. It was probably a second or third or fifth project for all of them, and that may be part of why it has worked so well: Nothing is taken too seriously or dwelt upon, and no matter how ponderous a documentary might be, its “Documentary Now!” parody is dispatched in about 20 minutes of screen time. (Each season has one double-length episode.)
Hader isn’t in the new season, and he is missed; his performances in the show’s “Grey Gardens” and “Swimming to Cambodia” takeoffs were series highlights. But Thomas is still a primary director (with Alex Buono), Meyers wrote three of the five episodes, and Armisen makes droll supporting appearances, beginning with his turn as an oily Hollywood agent in the season premiere, “Soldier of Illusion.”
That two-part opener, a gloss on Les Blank’s 1982 “Burden of Dreams,” about the making of Werner Herzog’s Amazon epic “Fitzcarraldo,” is not “Documentary Now!” at its best. The craziness that Blank captured had an autocratic, creepy quality that doesn’t lend itself to jokey caricature, and “Soldier of Illusion” — with Alexander Skarsgard as Herzog and August Diehl as his excitable leading man, Klaus Kinski — is overthought and diffuse, and not very funny.
“Documentary Now!” is better when it burrows into a single mood or character or idea. The new season’s “Two Hairdressers in Bagglyport” is all about capturing the charm, alternately winsome and bracing, of the British short film “3 Salons at the Seaside,” in which storefront hair salons are second homes for groups of doughty, talkative old women.
An imperious Harriet Walter and a timorous Cate Blanchett play the hairdressers who tend to a steady clientele portrayed by a squad of veteran British character actresses; the routines of gossip and reprimand are interrupted by Armisen’s appearances as the friendly, bumbling mail man. It’s a pleasant, prickly trifle, and Meyers’ script offers nuggets for the terrific cast, like this for Walter: “Her daughter came up to me at the funeral and said the nicest thing, she said: ‘You know what, Edwina? You made our mum’s hair look nicer than she’d ever been to any of us.’”
In “Trouver Frisson,” the key is the casting of Liliane Rovère — known to American audiences as the wily older agent, Arlette, in “Call My Agent!” — as a French filmmaker based on Agnès Varda. Rovère’s baleful deadpan is a constant amusement as the director, inspired by mold on her ceiling, sets off on a late-in-life search for the excitement she no longer feels.
She doesn’t find it at her old house, or at the retirement home where she visits a Godard-like former colleague (inspiring a quick recreation of moments from “Band of Outsiders,” retitled “The Philosophical Layabouts”), or in Frisson, a village whose residents are devoted to giving one another goose bumps. But she’s terrific company, and Matt Pacult and Tamsin Rawady’s script cleverly evokes the chilly Gallic whimsy of Varda’s essay films. (“The smell of mold is gone, yet there is the lingering stench of change.”)
The season’s high point demonstrates how a simple idea can have a satisfying payoff. “My Monkey Grifter” takes the incredulity felt by people who didn’t buy into the anthropomorphic narrative of “My Octopus Teacher” and parlays it into a playful lark that mixes natural history and true crime. Jamie Demetriou of the British cult sitcom “Stath Lets Flats” plays the protagonist, a gullible wildlife filmmaker, as a film-noir sap whose femme fatale is a hard-eyed rhesus monkey; reading words into her random arm movements, the first full sentence he makes out is “I want to see your films.” Now that’s comfort comedy that’s not talking down to you.