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Film Review: In “Family Romance, LLC,” Werner Herzog Once More Explores the Oddities of Human Behavior

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | July 3rd, 2020

Film poster: ““Family Romance, LLC”

Family Romance, LLC (Werner Herzog, 2019) 2½ out of 4 stars.

Prolific German director Werner Herzog has long been fascinated by the oddities of human (and animal) behavior, focusing, over the course of his varied career, on everything from a dancing chicken, an opera-crazed entrepreneur pulling a river boat over a mountain, a man who thinks he can communicate with bears, a penguin going the wrong way in Antarctica, and so much more. It comes as little surprise, then, that he would find the Japanese practice of renting families and friends worthy of his attention. In his latest film, a hybrid work of documentary fiction, he examines Yuichi Ishii’s company, “Family Romance,” as it offers comfort to those in need. Whether one requires a father, a companion or an exciting bit of (fabricated) good news, Ishii will come through. Though Herzog’s movie may be uneven in its treatment of the subject, the central premise never fails to hold one’s interest.

This is in many ways a profoundly sad story. From the 12-year-old girl, Mahiro, whose mother hires Ishii to play her long-lost dad, to the woman who declares that the best thing that ever happened to her was winning a large sum of money as a prize (leading Ishii to stage another such event), to the bride whose father is too drunk to attend her wedding, the narratives of loneliness and despair accumulate. It’s no wonder that, by the end, Ishii declares that it may all be too much for him. He also muses on the possibility that his own family could be similarly made up of actors. What is real in this world of make-believe?

Along the way we encounter a hotel staffed by robots (continuing Herzog’s recent interest in artificial intelligence, which he pursued in Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World), which gives Ishii especial pause, given the fakery in which he, himself, traffics. It’s a nice moment, though we linger a bit too long on the robot fish, just as we similarly stop for many another Herzog digression. In his purely documentary work, the director’s Bavarian-accented English makes even the craziest asides somehow engaging. Here, they often just drag. Nor is the film always helped by its fusion of fiction and nonfiction, the staged sequences marred, at times, by the lack of performance skills from the real-life people chosen to play dramatized versions of themselves.

Yuichi Ishii in FAMILY ROMANCE, LLC ©Mubi

Nevertheless, despite its imperfections, the movie raises intriguing questions, as do almost all of Herzog’s cinematic confections. If there is a single through line to his œuvre, it is his exploration of the idiosyncratic extremes of life on Earth. Thanks to him, we can travel the globe, discovering something new to appreciate in both the mundane and profound or, even better, the intersection of the two. Family Romance, LLC is no exception.

[Family Romance, LLC is now streaming on MUBI USA.]

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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