We’re bringing it back! It’s The 5! Not just any list, the top 5 list of anything and everything. Bringing it back is former 5 superstar, film critic Lesley Coffin.
With the release of Lonely Island’s smart and very funny Popstar: Never Stop, Never Stopping, the mockumentary returns to the big screens. Arguably one of the biggest budgeted in the history of the genre, the Andy Samberg-Akiva Schaffer-Jorma Taccone vehicle will likely earn comparisons to the godfather of all mockumentaries, This is Spinal Tap; well-earned for a movie that commits fully to being a parody of the vanity documentaries we’ve seen recently. But with the exception of Christopher Guest’s regular use of the genre for his projects, the brilliance of this particular subgenre’s easy to overlook. While first time filmmakers often use the genre to dip their toe into the industry (like documentaries, they are often cheaper and faster to make) when documentary conventions are used effectively, the mockumentary genre can be a brilliant way of highlighting ridiculous behavior. Here are 5 worth checking out before checking out Popstar this weekend.
The first time Woody Allen truly took complete authorial control also happens to remain one of his silliest films ever. Loosely inspired by crime documentaries from the era, the film recounts the exploits of Virgil Starkwell; America’s most compulsive (and inept) thief, recounted in interviews and suspiciously accessible found footage. Not a “pure” documentary (always filmed in the style, some of the footage would have never existed) but the use of documentary style adds considerably to the humor as people react in disbelief to Allen’s antics. And his almost sketch antics (bits which could have easily appeared in his early television comedy) are some of the funniest Allen ever thought of…from a poorly worded bank note to a poorly constructed fake gun, Virgil’s inept crimes make him the likable anti-hero he is. Allen returned to the mockumentary genre with Zelig more than a decade later (also worth seeking out), but for consistent laughs, Take the Money and Run is well worth a watch.
Like Allen, the first time auteur Albert Brooks made his first venture behind the camera of a feature with the parody Real Life. An ode to the recent birth of reality TV, the movie was inspired by PBS’s An American Family (which documented typical American family The Louds). Playing a documentary director named Albert Brooks, he’s looking for the quintessential American family to document morning and night (with a camera that looks like something out of Star Wars). The family he finds are the upper-middle class Yeagers, a veterinarian, his wife and their two kids. Despite promising their presence won’t intrude on their lives, Brooks and his storm-trooper looking cameraman become such a distraction, he costs Warren Yeager (Charles Grodin) his job and intrudes on a family funeral. While rarely mentioned with Brook’s bigger films (Lost in America, Defending Your Life) Brook’s droll, “Hollywood” persona is firmly established in his first outing as a filmmaker. And the completely deadpan approach to the matter more than likely laid the ground work for the modern TV comedies that take the same cinema verite approach, like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Before they had a hit with the mockumentaries The Trip and The Trip to Italy, Michael Winterbottom, Steve Coogan, and Rob Brydon joined forces with the making-of mockumentary about filming the unfilmable novel Tristram Shandy. Playing themselves, rising star Coogan is desperate to prove himself more than just the funny guy in movies. So he takes a part in an English period piece based on a piece of classic literature. While the movie within the movie is included, the dominate story focuses on the combative relationship between Coogan (playing the prized lead role of Tristram Shandy) and Rob Brydon (playing Uncle Toby) who insists he’s a co-lead. Like the perpetual game of one-upmanship they had during their culinary travels, their professional competitive teasing dominates…although you probably couldn’t call them friends at this point in their lives.
Even today, no one seems completely certain where the line between reality and fiction exists in this movie. Jeff Goldblum did perform as Henry Higgins in a Pittsburgh production of The Music Man (he even got a less than favorable review from a theater critic). He performed it live for an audience excited to see their hometown’s favorite son return to their stage. But the rehearsals of the musical, and tensions between himself and the director (Richard Sabellico, playing himself) were totally scripted. In the movie, Goldblum takes the job so his new Canadian girlfriend (Catherine Wreford) can get her visa by working in professional theater. Taking the job as the iconic huckster Higgins, a part Goldblum initially seems wrong for, he side steps his managers and agents who seem concerned that regional musical theater is a step down for the movie star. Co-starring Ed Begley Jr, Illeana Douglas, and Moby (all playing themselves), Pittsburgh’s definitely one of the weirdest entries into Goldblum’s filmography. But in the wonderful world of Goldblum, it seems like the perfect match of actor and material.
Arguably one of the funniest movies of last year, the New Zealand mockumentary finally answered that all important question; how do vampires spend their time? Turns out, they act a lot like hipsters; have roommates, clean their house, and go out clubbing (if they can get invited into one of them). The hilarious movie written and directed by Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, who co-star with comic Jonny Brugh as multigenerational flat mates in the months leading up to the annual vampire ball. Besides their everyday real world lifestyle, they also befriend a new vampire and his human friend, and fight with neighborhood werewolves. The movie proved to be an international sleeper hit thanks to its commitment to style, laugh out loud sight gags and a quotable script that includes lines like “we’re werewolves, not swearwolves.”