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Nonfiction filmmaking has an illustrious history, one that creators Fred Armisen, Bill Hader and Seth Meyers hilariously spoof in IFC’s new half-hour comedy Documentary Now!. The conceit is that we’re watching a long-running series — “Season Fifty,” states our side-splittingly deadpan host Helen Mirren — that screens classics of the form. Actual docs are name-checked in the opening credits (Don’t Look Back, Hoop Dreams and Man on Wire among them), but each of the movies of the week are elaborate put-ons, usually starring Armisen and Hader, that mimic the films they’re parodying to a riotous degree.
Based on the three episodes (of six total) sent out for review, Armisen, Hader and Meyers have done their homework and show great affection through their burlesque. Documentary Now! isn’t some scattershot takedown of the genre, but a loving lampoon that makes you appreciate the movies being satirized all the more.
The first episode, entitled “Sandy Passage,” certainly sets a high bar — a pitch-perfect, brilliantly performed send-up of Albert and David Maysles‘ seminal Grey Gardens (1975). Armisen and Hader play “Big” Vivvy and “Little” Vivvy Van Kimpton, a reclusive mother and daughter modeled on the erratic Beales from Gardens. Of course it’s funny to see both male comics in drag. But even better is their uncannily exact replication of the Beales’ eccentric mannerisms, which sync up perfectly with co-directors Rhys Thomas and Alex Buono’s superb imitation of the Maysles’ pioneering, fly-on-the-wall shooting style.
It’s a scream watching Hader reenact Gardens’ infamous dance sequence or listening to Armisen raucously scold anyone within earshot. (“It’s because you stomp” “Big” Vivvy shouts after “Little” Vivvy falls through the rotting floor above into the kitchen below.) Things take a much darker turn here than Gardens ever did, almost as if the makers of The Blair Witch Project took over filming halfway through. Yet even this out-of-left-field shift, which includes some intestine-ripping gore, makes some kind of twisted sense, and you’re ultimately grateful Armisen and Hader take the joke as far as they do.
The other two episodes made available for preview aren’t quite up to the level of “Sandy Passage,” but they’re still far from duds. First up is a parody of VICE video exposés entitled “Dronez: The Hunt for El Chingon,” in which Armisen and Hader play three separate pairs of hipster journalists (one pair gets killed off before each commercial break) who go in search of a Mexican drug lord. This mockery of “fearless” journalism is spot-on in pretty much every particular, from the antic editing tricks to the multiple facial hair atrocities. (Special guest star Jack Black boasts an especially abhorrent goatee.)
Then there’s “Kunuk Uncovered,” a dual-pronged pastiche of both late-’80s/early-’90s movie history docs and Robert Flaherty’s genre-defining silent masterpiece Nanook of the North (1922). Armisen plays the Eskimo subject “Kunuk” (not his actual name), star of a famous nonfiction film by explorer/ethnographer William H. Sebastian (John Slattery) that’s not as “real” as reported. Among the many gems in this installment: An identifying subtitle that reads “Former Eskimo Whore” and Kunuk’s on-set tantrum, complete with crackly, Victrola-recorded dialogue.
The mind boggles at where Armisen, Hader and Meyers could go from here (IFC has already renewed Documentary Now! for two more seasons). What might they do with Errol Morris’ Interrotron interview technique? What will they make of the ecstatic truthiness of Werner Herzog? Could they skewer political agitprop left (Michael Moore), right (Dinesh D’Souza) and Riefenstahl? All that and more, one hopes.
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