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NEW YORK – The vaults of American networks are littered with the corpses of imported sitcoms that died during the tricky adaptation process. Kath & Kim, anyone? Exporting Raymond (watch trailer) offers a funny inside view of the reverse trajectory, as a beloved U.S. hit gets retooled for the Russian market, courting disaster at every step.
Seemingly against all odds, Everybody Loves Raymond did go on to join the ranks of other successful transplants like The Nanny, Who’s the Boss? and Married… With Children, becoming the No. 1 show on Russian television. That gives this fish-out-of-water/culture-clash comedy an uplifting final act. But the real key to the documentary’s appeal is its writer-director Phil Rosenthal, creator of the long-running CBS sitcom.The small screen would seem to be a more natural home for this zippy documentary. But its all-access tour of the choppy waters of the TV export business will make the Samuel Goldwyn release of interest to industry insiders, and a curiosity for Raymond fans.
Sent to Moscow by Sony to supervise development of Everybody Loves Kostya, Rosenthal took along a small crew and approached his assignment with the bemused detachment (and some of the spotlight-seeking instinct) of a Michael Moore. Nobody will question the importance of Ray Romano and the chemistry of his cast-mates in making Raymonda nine-season smash and syndication perennial. But exposure to Rosenthal reveals just how much of his self-effacing everyman persona went into the central character. Not to mention the influence of his bickering parents on the show’s Marie and Frank.
That “relatability” factor was central to Raymond’s popularity in the U.S. It’s also the prime element that the Russians just don’t get. One of the chief disagreements is about whether the family dynamic alone is sufficient hook for a comedy, thereby undermining the entire foundation of the Great American Sitcom. But that’s also the point here about the difficulty of finding cultural equivalents in humor.
The Russian director and writers insist on making Kostya more assertive and less henpecked, in line with tougher national codes of masculinity. The costume designer wants Kostya’s wife to be a fashion-conscious babe, cleaning house in white cashmere and heels. Deadpan verbal comedy has less traction than broad shtick and physical pratfalls. Rosenthal describes one especially turgid actor in the running for Kostya as “a perfect storm of terrible.” With every sign that his baby is being mauled, Rosenthal’s face dissolves from polite apprehension to horror.
Through a series of shakeups and delays, including the ousting of the Russian network head, the replacement of the entire creative team and encounters with a remarkably dour comedy guru, Rosenthal attempts to get to know his host country.
His enigmatic driver takes him on a not-so-fun tour of a Soviet munitions museum. He attends a typical Russian family dinner, finding parallels with his own experience. Most entertaining is his visit to the hallowed Moscow Art Theater, temple of Stanislavski and Chekhov, to lobby for the release of an ensemble member chosen to play Kostya.
While some of these situations have the feel of reality-show set-ups, Rosenthal navigates the cultural divide with wry humor. He wisecracks about gulag-like Soviet studio facilities (“Which one did they film Sawin?”) and frets about Britney Spears being revered as “the best of American culture.”
There’s a hint of poignancy in Rosenthal’s gradual relinquishment of control. He comes to understand that, to his skeptical colleagues, his personal investment in the show is immaterial. Becoming increasingly neurotic, he begins to question the universality of the concept, and grows more aware of the paradoxical dilemma of working on a sitcom with a people known for their melancholia. Purely as an example of the mutations of translation, the juxtaposition of original American scenes from the show with their reworked Russian versions is priceless.
Opens: April 29 (Samuel Goldwyn Films)
Production companies: Where’s Lunch, Full On Service
Director-writer: Phil Rosenthal
Producers: Phil Rosenthal, Jim Czarnecki
Executive producer: John F. Woldenberg
Director of photography: Geoffrey O’Connor
Music: Rick Marotta
Editors: David Zieff, Brian Singbiel
Rated PG; 86 minutes
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