We can only do what we really are.
Leave it to the Japanese to create an industry where you hire actors to fill-in for every occasion. The father of the bride can’t attend the wedding due to illness? Hire a performer to take his place so the absence isn’t noticeable (no sitcom antics a la headsets via “Arrested Development” or motorized computers via “The Big Bang Theory”). Unable to relive the excitement you felt upon winning the lottery? Pay someone to randomly surprise you as though you’ve won again to enjoy the emotional high even if there’s no new influx of cash. Is your daughter of an age where she’s finally asking about her absentee father? Call Ishii Yuichi and his Family Romance, LLC associates. They’ll pretend to be anyone as long as the check clears.
I’ll grant Werner Herzog this: the concept is one-of-a-kind. The German auteur was right to tell his former student Roc Morin to make a feature about it after the young man shared its audacious true-life phenomenon and right again to ask if he could step in and film one instead upon finding out from Morin that he wasn’t ready to embark on such an adventure just yet. A concept isn’t everything, though. You still need to find a way to make it meaningful either as pure entertainment or social commentary and I simply don’t believe the final product succeeds at either. There are certainly glimpses of greatness on both fronts, but the hurried nature of its scenes and disjointed skit-like sequencing make it difficult to ever truly invest.
A big part of the problem is the decision to shoot guerilla style in Japan without permits. Herzog speaks at length about the adrenaline rush of doing so while security mobilizes in his periphery (he also served as cinematographer), but the result is hindered by how rushed the actors are and how abruptly things begin and end. The film becomes a series of self-contained islands ripe for comedy that aren’t allowed to breathe. It wouldn’t be horrible if the whole leaned into that aesthetic by making uproarious laughter without rhyme or reason the point. The moment Herzog slows things down to force Yuichi into confronting an existential crisis about losing his own identity to the many he adopts, however, is the moment those asides inevitably become superfluous distraction.
The film unfolds in a pattern: one scene between Yuichi and the family he has infiltrated as long-lost patriarch (Miki Fujimaki‘s mother hires him to give Mahiro Tanimoto‘s daughter the paternal figure she’s missed) and one scene elsewhere to portray the many ways this service can be utilized. It’s a solid back and forth because we’re not asked to care about anyone above the situational humor. But then comes a scene so blatantly staged that we can’t help laughing at it rather than with it. Yuichi is looking forlorn as he walks up to a shrine of foxes to pray before greeting a stranger and engaging in a wooden conversation that strives to evoke empathy. I waited patiently for a punch line only to discover it was earnest.
That’s when I checked out with no chance of ever being brought back into the fold. I stayed to enjoy the farcical moments (a woman trying to go viral by hiring fake paparazzi provided a good laugh), but I was fully walled off from caring about Yuichi while he realizes the paradoxical nature of doing his job too well. Some scenes arrive that approach the impulse of commentary such as Yuichi admiring a hotel’s robotic concierges both as mirrors onto his profession and potential replacements to eradicate the possibility of growing feelings for your marks, but they never take the next step to actually say anything. Even the final shot of the movie falls flat despite an attempt at profundity it unfortunately can never quite earn.
That’s the tragic reality of Family Romance, LLC despite it not being without merit as an exercise if we learn that it got Herzog’s creative juices flowing to have another go at the style with a more focused ambition. It’s tough to label it a success on its own, though, when it ultimately proves so unsatisfying as anything more than a rough draft to something else. So while I admire the effort and appreciate the drive, that’s as far as I can go with praise. The actors mostly thrive in spite of being asked to do a lot with a little (most of the dialogue is improvised besides certain key lines and the scenarios themselves), but this mix of overlong and undercooked vignettes does nobody involved any favors.
[1-3] (c) Lena Herzog