Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You


Little Norman at the lectern.

Little Norman at the lectern.

(2015) Documentary (Music Box) Norman Lear, Rob Reiner, Amy Poehler, John Amos, Russell Simmons, George Clooney, Louise Lasser, Mel Brooks, Bob Saget, Carl Reiner, Bill Moyers, Jon Stewart, Lyn Lear, Kate Lear, Keaton Nigel Cooke, Jay Leno, Martin Mull, Jimmie Walker, Bud Yorkin, Sally Struthers, Mary Kay Place, Valerie Bertinelli, Adrienne Barbeau. Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

Florida Film Festival 2016

One of the giants of the television landscape is Norman Lear. While there are those who criticize his politics (he’s an unabashed liberal who brought progressive thought to the airwaves back when it was dominated by conservative sorts) nobody can deny the success that he enjoyed (the only man to have six shows in the top ten simultaneously) nor the legacy he left behind.

This documentary is mainly aimed at the glory days of Lear’s career in the 70s, as we follow the creation and execution of shows like All in the Family, Maude, Good Times and The Jeffersons among others. There are some interesting things worth noting, like Carroll O’Conner had a very hard time reconciling his own liberal beliefs with the racist dialogue his character had to say. He often fought Lear on certain elements of dialogue because he felt so uncomfortable about saying it, even as a character not himself. Generally, Lear prevailed and as such we got Archie Bunker, America’s favorite bigot as TV Guide once termed him.

While there are plenty of talking head interviews, the most interesting are with Lear himself who even as a nonagenarian is clear-eyed and a charismatic raconteur. While some of the interviews come a bit close to fawning, certainly if anyone warranted such treatment its Lear. As we hear from such modern comedy icons as Amy Poehler and Jon Stewart (as well as Everybody Loves Raymond creator Phil Rosenthal) one gets a real sense of just how influential the man continues to be. Certainly the modern television landscape would be a very different place without him.

Best of all, we get to see a goodly amount of clips of some of the various shows’ best moments. For those like myself who grew up in that era, the sense of nostalgia is palpable, and very welcome. While I didn’t religiously watch these shows (I grew up in a conservative household with a dad who thought Lear was too political and certainly too much of a leftie for his tastes), I did watch them often and enjoyed them.

There is a bit of a misstep; there are some linking devices here with a young boy, wearing a hat similar to the one that Lear has become known for wearing (for more than 50 years, no less) apparently playing Lear as a young man re-enacting some of the events of Lear’s life on a bare stage. While I give the filmmakers props for at least trying to get out of the typical talking head/archival footage mode that characterizes most profile documentaries, it just doesn’t work.

What does work is Lear himself. He had a difficult relationship with his own father, who was jailed when Lear was just nine years old. One of the more powerful moments is when Lear unexpectedly breaks down when discussing his relationship with his dad. It’s one of the times we get to see inside the inner Lear.

And there’s the rub. I don’t think we get a very complete view of who Lear the man is, but you’re not really going to do that in an hour and a half in any case. Thinking that any documentarian can do so is simply unrealistic. We do get a good sense of Lear’s accomplishments and what he means to modern television in general. We also come to the understanding that as influential as Lear is, and as much as his work echoes into the modern day small screen ethos, nobody makes ‘em like the master anymore and there is a hint of the bittersweet in that fact that is inescapable. There will never be another quite like him.

REASONS TO GO: Some very powerful emotional moments. A trip down memory lane. Really gives you an idea of how influential Lear is.
REASONS TO STAY: Not sure we needed Little Norman.
FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lear was 93 years old when interviewed for this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score found.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Kid Stays in the Picture
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Wrestling Alligators

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Exporting Raymond


 

Exporting Raymond

Philip Rosenthal on the mean streets of Moscow.

(2010) Documentary (Goldwyn) Philip Rosenthal, Stanislav Duzhnikov, Anna Frolovtseva, Boris Klyuev, Konstantine Naumochkin, Oleg Tabokov, Aleksandr Zhigalkin, Ray Romano, Peter Boyle, Doris Roberts, Brad Garrett, Patricia Heaton. Directed by Philip Rosenthal

We grow up thinking that certain things are universal, that you can count on them no matter what part of the planet you’re standing in. However, you’d be surprised at how some of the basics differ from country to country.

Philip Rosenthal assumed that no matter where you went, family dynamics would be pretty much the same the world over. As the producer in charge of the hit sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond,” he’d used his own experiences as well as those of star Ray Romano to create a show that resonated with American audiences. While the show was never critically acclaimed (and in several of the reviews of this documentary I read some fairly snarky comments about the show) it still got high ratings mainly due to the likability of the stars and the universality of the situation – families can, after all, be pretty weird sometimes and the source for a lot of our own stories and smiles.

As the show was reaching its final episode, Sony (who distributed the series) was eager to export it to other countries (much in the way reality shows like “The Biggest Loser” and “American Idol” are exported), complete with local casts and crew – with Sony reaping the benefit. To this end they decided to use the Russian Federation as a test market and sent Rosenthal over there to talk with the Russian network and help set the show up there.

Before going, Rosenthal was nervous due to reports of high crime and the kidnapping for ransom of American businessmen; he was sold insurance in case of that very scenario occurring although he was later told that he “wasn’t worth the effort” which wasn’t meant in a mean way – he’s just not high enough on the food chain to make it worth the time and expense for the Russian mob to snatch him.

Once in Moscow, Rosenthal found the television industry to be much different than the American counterpart (although in some ways very much the same when it came to studio interference). He was constantly at odds with the director and in particular, the costumer (who thought that this middle class Russian family should be far more fashionable). Also the American sense of humor is a lot different than the Russian and jokes that brought rolling on the floor laughs from the Americans fell flat for the Russians, and vice versa. Acting styles were a lot different.

Rosenthal was constantly frustrated by the lack of willingness to bend by the Russians in terms of the concept of the show, the casting and other items. He has invested a great deal of his time and blood, sweat and tears into making the show successful. Can he make lightning strike twice?

This isn’t what you’d call a vital documentary. After all, your daily life isn’t going to be much affected if the Russian version of “Everybody Loves Raymond” is successful or not. I think Rosenthal wanted to make something on the cultural differences of the nation formerly known as The Evil Empire and the Good Guys.

Except this really doesn’t do the job. Rosenthal seems more inclined to take shots with cheap one liners at the expense of the various people he meets rather than to explore the nature of the differences between us. He does make an attempt to spend time with a Russian family but only manages to connect with them when he converses with his own technologically challenged parents on Skype.

This becomes little more than one man’s home movies about his vacation in Russia and to be honest, if I wanted a travelogue I’d look up Rick Steeves. There really are no attempts to really look with too much depth at the Russian culture other than to make fun of it. Still, if you liked the sitcom, you’ll probably like this as well. I just wish it had tried to get us to laugh with the Russians than at them. In the end, maybe if Rosenthal had been a little more willing to listen and a little less needing to do a comedy act he might have had a smoother time getting the show made.

WHY RENT THIS: The culture clash elements are the most interesting parts of the film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Kind of a fluffy subject matter. Doesn’t really educate much and the humor can be a little mean.

FAMILY VALUES: One or two mildly rude words but really acceptable for all families.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although originally titled “Everybody Loves Kostya,” the show eventually ran under the title “Voroniny,” after the central family’s surname.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a featurette comparing the American and Russian versions of the show. There is also a brief piece in which Rosenthal’s dad tells a joke.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $87,277 on an unreported production budget; the movie may have made a profit but just broke even in more likelihood.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Baseball

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Bernie