Documentary Now!

In its two-hour season 51 finale, Documentary Now! presents a very close parody of The Kid Stays In The Picture, the documentary adaptation of Hollywood producer Robert Evans’ autobiography. Bill Hader plays Documentary Now!’s own version of Evans, Jerry Wallach, in “Mr. Runner Up: My Life As An Oscar Bridesmaid,” a documentary presented by Jerry Wallach, about Jerry Wallach, and narrated by Jerry Wallach. In a season full of terrific performances from Hader, this last one is easily his best. His performance and a hilarious, smart script from Hader and John Mulaney incisively capture the dirty, money-hungry underbelly of Hollywood.

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Robert Evans is the perfect subject for Documentary Now! to recreate, because the man seems like a satirical character to begin with. His ego seems impossibly huge in The Kid Stays In The Picture. (He, too, narrated his own documentary.) He’s a caricature of the soulless, uncreative, business-savvy producer that Hollywood loves to mock. Evans is regarded as a joke by most movie lovers, but he’s a fascinating joke. Through Wallach, Documentary Now! slices right to the heart of that joke, presenting a bold and undiluted critique of Hollywood and the nefarious forces behind big studios. “Mr. Runner Up” strips away the sheen of Hollywood, making it look like the behemoth it is. There’s nothing noble or inspirational about Wallach’s quest for Oscar gold. He just wants the prestige that comes from it. It wasn’t movie magic that won Wallach’s heart when he first saw Snow White in theaters as a little toupe-topped boy. It was thinking about how much money the movie was making that widened his eyes and took him to Los Angeles in pursuit of his first entertainment job. “Mr. Runner Up” makes no pretense at integrity in its portrayal of movie-making.

Wallach is a womanizing, self-aggrandizing, cigar-chomping brute who gets by on luck and empty charm, stomping his way to the head of Pinnacle Pictures (an obvious analog for Paramount Pictures, which Evans ran) with only Enzo Entolini (Fred Armisen), the Charlie Chaplin of Italy by his side. Though Hader carries the episode, Armisen’s Entolini is a hilarious player in this tale of Hollywood madness. Armisen’s knack for physical comedy comes into play perfectly here, and there’s also something weirdly touching about the way Wallach can’t help but crack a smile when his old friend Entolini wins the Jerry Wallach Humanitarian Award at the end of the episode. Yet again, Documentary Now! infuses its over-the-top narratives with a grounding dose of humanity. Wallach and Entolini feel real throughout.

Blending real archival footage from Oscars ceremonies and other Hollywood events with the faked photos and footage of Bill Hader and Fred Armisen, “Mr. Runner Up” creates a collage-like universe that bends reality. Documentary Now! often constructs worlds that look and feel real, but here, it’s especially disorienting and delightful. Wallach and Entolini exist among real people, like Julie Andrews and Anne Hathaway (who Wallach calls “Julie Andrews’ little minion”). To make things even more meta, many of the movies Wallach apes with watered-down versions were produced by Evans himself. “Mr. Runner Up” uses a decent amount of actual Hollywood history to contextualize Wallach, like Sacheen Littlefeather accepting Marlon Brando’s Oscar. The success of “Mr. Runner Up” rests on this mixture of fiction and reality.

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Even the more over-the-top embellishments have some root in reality. In “Mr. Runner Up,” Pinnacle Pictures is just a front for a CIA tax shelter, which becomes an increasingly more ludicrous bit over the course of the finale. In reality, Evans was not quite this in over his head, but he was convicted of trafficking cocaine and was even tied to a contract killing during the production of The Cotton Club. So, yeah. It wasn’t exactly all just fluffy movie-making fun.

It’s also sadly easy to swallow Wallach’s bastardization of She Cried For Justice, the fictional novel written by Edna Bach about a Jewish girl who escaped the Holocaust and, years later, sees her Nazi guard living under a new name in New York City. After twisting Bach’s arm into giving him the rights to the story, Wallach hires a hot ingenue to play the lead, Entolini to play the guard, bans Bach from set, changes the title to Blondes, Blondes, Blondes, And A Millionaire, and turns it into a love story. Documentary Now! packs a lot into this satire of Hollywood ruining a good story with sensationalism. As ludicrous as Blondes, Blondes, Blondes, And A Millionaire, it doesn’t seem that detached from our reality. Documentary Now!’s strange mixture of authenticity and parody allows it to manufacture stories that are more significant, more telling, and more resonant than mere sketches.

The overall structure of the two-parter works very well in conveying Wallach’s meteoric rise and fall. So many details contribute to the characterization of Wallach as a maniacal supervillain. There’s his last-second, off-hand reveal that he has four sons, who were never previously mentioned. Faye Dunaway, playing herself, balks at the end of part one when she realizes that Wallach never mentioned they were married. Like Evans does in The Kid Stays In The Picture, Wallach presents his own life as if it were a cinematic narrative, cutting out anything he feels is peripheral. Though his story unfolds mostly in photographs paired narration—Hader barely gets to act on screen in it—it’s still an immersive, dynamic episode. Mulaney and Hader have written an incredibly detailed script, and not a single joke seems like a throwaway. All the comedy contributes to the faux doc’s central themes and messages and details this larger-than-life character at its center. Wallach is an unreliable narrator, but the way he constructs his own narrative reveals a lot about the behind-the-scenes world of Hollywood. Hollywood loves to examine itself, but Documentary Now! does so in a way that doesn’t amount to tedious navel-gazing. It scrutinizes a specific part of the movie industry through Wallach and does so in a way that never stops being funny. Documentary Now! remains layered and sharp in its season finale.

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Stray observations

  • Chariots Of Fire, which is, at best, a soundtrack that your mother has in her car”
  • The Peter Bogdanovich bandana joke is so good.
  • Just when I thought I was done laughing, they threw in that title card that says Wallach won an Oscar in 2006 for Crash.
  • A week ago, I would have said my favorite episode of the season was “Juan Likes Rice And Chicken,” but I think “Mr. Runner Up” may have usurped it. I’m such a Hader fan, and this episode really plays to his strengths in the same way “Parker Gail’s Location Is Everything” does.
  • And so, we have come to the end of Documentary Now!’s 51st season. I can’t wait for 750 more seasons.

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