This Documentary Now! review contains spoilers.
Documentary Now! Season 2 Episode 6
“Everybody’s got a great Jerry Wallach story. The only person who doesn’t have a great Jerry Wallach story is Jerry Wallach. Because his are all lies.”
Documentary Now’s second season has come and gone in the blink of an eye, but the double dose of homage that the season decides to close on is a strong, fitting end to a phenomenal season of comedy. This finale might not be the best episode of the season in my opinion (it’s going to be hard to top “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything” for me), but it’s a passionate endeavor that highlights the incredibly committed production team in place on this show.
Pulling from the Robert Evans’ biopic, The Kid Stays in the Picture, as its source material, we are treated to Hader being the focal point in this two-part finale. “Mr. Runner Up: My Life as an Oscar Bridesmaid” places Hader in the role of Jerry Wallach, a hammy, washed up Hollywood producer who is determined to stay relevant and make it back into the spotlight. And boy is it fun to watch him selfishly try to scrape his way up there again.
The episode poignantly kicks off with Peter Bogdanovich (who is one of many celebrity testimonials from Wallach’s life featured here, along with Mia Farrow, Faye Dunaway, and Peter Fonda) explaining how unreliable of a narrator Jerry Wallach is and how the wisest move would be to do this documentary on him without his presence involved, lest the whole project become tainted by his embellishments. It’s the perfect sort of litmus test for throwing you into Jerry’s world and a necessary disclaimer before moving forward into Wallach’s hyper-narcissistic, deluded take on his life and career.
“Mr. Runner Up” largely follows the formula of Wallach recounting his entire life to you (he even narrates the project), beginning with his humble childhood that plays alongside old black-and-white photos and newsreel reports to give it all additional credence. While Wallach’s childhood is hardly the focus of this doc, it’s still full of plenty entertaining detours, such as learning about a young Wallach’s struggle with “Magenta Fever”(you know, the “Moroccan Influenza”) which renders Jerry bald at the age of five, greatly impacting his sense of self and affecting the boy’s confidence.
“Mr. Runner Up” is also sure to highlight the momentous impact that cinema had on a developing Wallach and how entrenched the medium is in his character. We learn how motion pictures made the boy feel invincible when he was without a father (although to be fair, 35 is kind of pushing it…), with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves holding particular significance for him (but not for the reasons that you might think).
While large spans of Wallach’s life are hilariously skipped over (like Wallach’s years in college, “which he had absolutely no stories from”), a great amount of weight is put on Jerry’s arrival in Hollywood, the clients he signs shortly after, and his lavish life which eventually sees him getting put in charge of running a movie studio, Pinnacle Pictures, and on the top of his game.
Not far into Wallach’s tenure in Hollywood, he runs afoul of Enzo Entolini (Armisen), the “Italian Chaplin” and the perfect client to sign and save his floundering Pinnacle Pictures in the process. Seeing the footage from various Entolini films is really well handled and Armisen is in prime form in these “Italian sexy neo-realism” productions. There’s a bit of his Ferecito character from SNL in Enzo, but that’s a good thing if anything. As soon as Armisen shows up here the episode feels a lot more balanced and that it’s not purely going to be a showcase of Hader’s abilities. Watching Entolini slowly morph into a Polanski surrogate is also great stuff and the joke about his 12 year-old wife is so damn funny. “Mr. Runner Up” soon begins shifting into focusing on the palpable friendship between Jerry and Enzo (“I called him ‘El Wopo’ and he called me ‘racist.’”) and it’s another great instance of the chemistry between Hader and Armisen.
Continuing to follow the trajectory of Hollywood’s history, “Mr. Runner Up” shows Wallach buying the rights to “The Gospel of Lewis” and turning it into “Friend of the Son of Man,” with Wallach’s career seeing him producing these fringe Bible stories, a plan which only made Wallach and Pinnacle more of a joke. This leads to Wallach being even more determined to win an Oscar to earn him the respect that he’s certain that he deserves. This sort of precipitous grab for the spotlight and getting in everyone’s face is the note that part one of “Mr. Runner Up” ends on.
Not enough can be said here on the visual effects and stylistic approach that’s put in play for “Mr. Runner Up.” Old footage and still images gain life and energy through 3D camera zooms and manipulation of archival footage to give them new life. On top of this, the episode impressively edits Hader’s Wallach in with plenty of Golden Age Hollywood’s crème de la crème. All the archival and staged footage at old Oscar ceremonies, complete with fake posters for Wallach’s films, is so well handled. I mean, all of this stuff is funny, but once more I’m just floored at how slick this thing looks and just how successful it is as a documentary. This episode is just seamless and totally nails The Kid Stays in the Picture’s aesthetic.
We even get to see footage from a number of Wallach’s bigger productions, all of which are great little glimpses of the ill-gotten films that he made happen. All of these are seamless, extravagant parody pieces, with this double-episode practically showing off a dozen different fake films and cinema styles. The episode covers the gamut between Wallach’s old Little Rascals-esque endeavors or pro drunk driving ads that he made happen.
With part one very much being about Wallach’s growth and emergence in Hollywood, as well as his partnership with Entolini, then the second part is about Wallach’s obsessive quest to win an Oscar and show everyone he deserves to be taken seriously. Wallach’s delirious quest for an Academy Award begins with him buying the rights to adapt the Holocaust survival story, “She Cried For Justice,” and in spite of having the best of intentions, ends up turning it into, “Blondes, Blondes, Blondes, and a Millionaire” by the time it’s seeing release. There’s a lot of Wallach just continually mining gratuitous and manipulative stories, shamelessly aping to hit Oscar gold. Accordingly we see a lot of Oscar staples being lampooned and indulged in, all of which are great.
On this note, Wallach releases such gems as “The Plan to Sell Dope,” “Going Steady,” “Koreatown,” and The Exorcist-riffing, “Detective Rabbi,” all of which are pictures derivative of other studios’ hits (and let’s not forget the Enzo Entolini-directed “Fisting,” the cokiest movie of all time). “Mr. Runner Up” continues to dig deeper into the territory of ridiculous Oscar fodder, such as celebrities’ vocal displays of lampooning the ceremony, refusing awards, or having others accept their trophies for them. There’s a lot of mileage that the episode is able to get out of all of this alpha-dog celebrity behavior.
As “Mr. Runner Up” continues, you begin to realize that Wallach’s life is full of swinging turns and unpredictable shifts. At one point Pinnacle Pictures is getting bought as a tax shelter by the CIA and going through crazy rigmarole that sees the company getting sold out from under Wallach, unless Wallach can convince the CIA that there’s worth to the studio and it’s not just some front. The episode goes about this material by lampooning those great talk-to-the-camera sequences that Walt Disney, Walter Lantz, or Orson Welles would do every so often. These are complimented with old talk show appearances by Wallach, all of which work especially well since they show the real Wallach instead of this version he keeps trying to pass off. These little reminders of how much of a monster Wallach is work especially well and are crucial to the documentary’s point.
Wallach’s journey keeps changing as his continual disasters force him out of Pinnacle and rather than giving up, he opens his own solo production company, investing harder in delusion and another decade of losses. We see that Wallach needs to sadly learn how to be happy with the millions he’s made and give up this dream. He tries to do as much by moving into the field of charity with “Lights, Camera, Hope,” but it’s not long before he’s trying to leverage this into an Oscar opportunity, too. He can’t give up this addiction. Wallach’s simultaneously bitter and passionate take on Hollywood is entertaining stuff.
“Mr. Runner Up” is another entertaining installment of this series where Armisen and Hader might not be doing the best work that they’ve done in this season, but they’re playing characters that feel distinctly different and it’s once again satisfying to see these two chameleon themselves into some new personae. I’m also not sure if this ultimately needed to be two parts. It all works well and feels natural with an organic mid-point, but this story easily could have been pared down to fit a sole entry. That being said, part of the charm of this is letting this material breathe, not rushing Wallach’s life, and letting him truly wax on about himself. I also felt that last year’s two-part finale focusing on “The Blue Jean Committee” didn’t necessarily need the double run time, and this I ended up enjoying more than that. Plus, the final, final joke that the episode goes out on is such inside baseball and the most insular of Oscar jabs, but it’s pretty damn hilarious (hint: think 2006’s Best Picture winner).
“Mr. Runner Up” is a confident note for Documentary Now’s second season to close on, and with all of the talents and subversive ideas featured throughout this year, I can’t wait to see what this team brings to the table in season three (or rather, fifty-two). This crew already has this show operating at such an impeccable quality that I might not be able to handle things getting any better.
Overall Season Grade: 4.5/5