Roush Review: ‘Documentary Now!’ Returns With Mock Docs That Feel Hilariously Real

Cate Blanchett and Harriet Walter in 'Documentary Now!'
Will Robson-Scott/Broadway Video/IFC/AMC

Documentary Now!

Matt's Rating: rating: 4.5 stars

The best form of parody is when you don’t need to know the source to appreciate the joke, although when you do, the laughs are even richer. So it is with the brilliant short films of Documentary Now! in its fourth (they call it 53rd) season, taking the notion of a mock documentary to a sublimely silly new level. How Helen Mirren keeps a straight face introducing these send-ups remains a marvel.

The elaborate two-part opener, “Soldier of Illusion,” spoofs Werner Herzog’s 1982 Burden of Dreams, which followed the driven filmmaker through the grueling production of his epic Fitzcarraldo in Peru. In this wacky version, written by John Mulaney, a very game Alexander Skarsgård embodies the caricature of a pretentiously visionary director toiling in the remote Ular mountains of Russia to depict the lives of an indigenous tribe when he also accepts an assignment to direct the pilot of a dim-witted CBS sitcom, Bachelor Nanny.

Fred Armisen and Alexander Skarsgard in 'Documentary Now' Season 53


The inspired supporting cast includes Fred Armisen (a series co-creator) as an unctuous CBS comedy exec, Succession‘s Nicholas Braun as a former child actor who first saw the director’s films when he mistook an art house for a porn theater, and August Diehl (Inglourious Basterds) as an inappropriately intense actor modeled after Herzog favorite Klaus Kinski. The jokes are droll, the situation beyond ridiculous as an outdoor sitcom soundstage is constructed and a tribal blood feud erupts during the pilot’s taping.

Seth Meyers, another co-creator, went deep into the documentary archive for the following episode. I’d never heard of 1994’s fly-on-the-wall Three Salons at the Seaside, but that didn’t diminish my delight in “Two Hairdressers in Bagglyport” (October 26), written by Meyers, which features the great Cate Blanchett and Harriet Walter as Alice and Edwina. They toil in the mundane setting of a British village salon, unfazed by a customer’s vacation postcard reading “Mary’s been kidnapped again.” The plot, such as it is, involves the creation of an annual stylebook, modeled in a warped fashion after 2009’s Vogue documentary The September Issue.

Elements of the absurd animate these vignettes, like “How They Threw Rocks” (November 2), which honors the Oscar-winning 1996 Ali–Foreman boxing film When We Were Kings by staging a play-by-play of a bizarre Welsh rock-hurling competition. Another Oscar winner, 2020’s My Octopus Teacher, is transformed into the hilarious “My Monkey Grifter” (November 9), about a filmmaker’s one-sided obsession with a diabolical zoo animal.

The realism within these cockeyed concoctions reminds you time and again that this series isn’t monkeying around.

Documentary Now!, Season Premiere, Wednesday, October 19, 10/9c and 10:30/9:30c, IFC