Thanks to Christopher Guest, who, if he didn’t invent the genre, certainly perfected the mockumentary structure, we as a society now have the pseudo-factual art form. As a longtime fan of Guest, though one who saw “This is Spinal Tap” long after “Best in Show” and “Waiting for Guffman,” there’s a charm amidst the nonsense and there’s a very professional feel to the satire. In more recent years, we’ve seen the rise of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant. These men took a longer approach to the same idea, and then expanded it to the point that by the time the series was localized in North America, the format was almost lost. Certainly, in the later seasons of The Office, the camera crew was forgotten. The characters were speaking to the audience and there was no longer a Dunder Mifflin “documentary” in Scranton, Pennsylvania. Then came Modern Family, which continues the tradition of characters directly addressing viewers.
If you haven’t heard of HBO’s “7 Days in Hell,” you’re not alone, but that’s today. Over the next three weeks, it won’t be surprising in the least to see it result in numerous trendy hashtags and plenty of workplace conversations. But, be careful who’s around when you start those chats, because this thing has no problem whatsoever in letting you know rather quickly just how crass a project it truly is. You’re also going to laugh your face off…several times.
HBO is calling the effort a “Special Presentation,” which is a good way to describe it, because it seems to defy convention, both in the way it tackles its story and also in a melding of various classifications of fiction. The film (that’s what I’m going with) tells the story of Aaron Williams (Andy Samberg) and Charles Poole (Kit Harington), whose lives and fates were intertwined as they engaged in a seven-day tennis battle at Wimbledon in 2001. The film opens with the HBO Sports intro as it’s technically about sports, but only as the means to its own glorious brand of idiocy.
Samberg’s Williams seems ripped straight from an Andre Agassi Canon Rebel X commercial, but he’s a complete prick. Come to think of it, at that point, so was Andre. He said as much in “Open” several years ago. But Aaron is that special, Generation-X kind of asshole. You know the one, or perhaps you are the one. If you’ve seen what Andy does in more of an improvisational setting, you’ve seen how he plays Williams. He moves from the obvious Samberg to a more subdued character portrayal and for the most part, it’s effective. At times, he’s a little too Andy for my tastes, but that’s often a pitfall of a well-known sketch comic who gets typecast. It’s difficult to talk all that much about the characters without spoiling many great moments, but his rise to his fall to his rise to his fall hits as a conceit far more than it misses. This guy has bisexual tendencies, massive and multiple drug problems (which include cocaine hidden in the lines on the court), and he has no respect for the Queen of England (June Squibb). Thanks to Williams’ antics, you’ll see gratuitous nudity from both sexes, including in Taiwanese news recreations. You’ll view more than you’re expecting when the film begins, but it fits because “7 Days in Hell” wants to shock while it helps you bust a gut.
On the flipside is Charles Poole, a British tennis prodigy, forced into the sport by an overbearing parent (Mary Steenburgen); the way many athletes have throughout the last few decades, particularly in individual competition. Poole is a wizard on the court, but he’s a numbskull. He constantly uses the word “indubitably,” most of the time out of context, because it’s a fairly large word that he somehow learned between rallies or bouts with a ball machine. Poole has the weight of the country on his shoulders. England hasn’t seen a Wimbledon champion in several decades, which of course was the actual story that dogged players like Tim Henman and more recently, Andy Murray. But, those guys were and are competent, engaged, multi-faceted individuals. Charles Poole is an idiot, and Jon Snow plays him perfectly. On occasion, you can see the Jon-stare, but you believe that there’s nothing behind those eyes. I was curious to see how Harington would fit into this kind of project, and the answer is quite simple: like a glove.
Cameos and guest appearances throughout, most notably not the celebrities or Samberg’s old crew, though there are plenty of them. What makes “7 Days in Hell” unique is in the blending of an impromptu comedy troupe and actual sports figures and tennis experts. Both Chris Evert and John McEnroe are excellent as they describe the matches and the histories of the players (as well as an extra backstory that makes no sense to include EXCEPT in this film). Jim Lampley is featured as well and basically exists to take amusing potshots at tennis, which he claims to hate, even though he’s the lead broadcaster on the coverage. Then, there’s Serena Williams. To avoid ruining a great reveal, I’ll leave it to say she’s really good and her reason for being in the film is a stroke of genius from Samberg and head writer Murray Miller (Girls, American Dad, King of the Hill).
Will Forte remains one of the more underrated SNL and sketch performers in history, and here he is again being flawless and stone-faced through absolutely insane dialogue. He keeps it together as a faux-expert talking about his affinity for adult films, Williams’ sexual escapades, and various drug references. His reactions to the “serious” moments in the film are the kind of thing he was born to do. He’s also wearing quite possibly the greatest sports coat of all time throughout the film. Fred Armisen, Lena Dunham, Howie Mandel, Soledad O’Brien, and several others find their way into the proceedings as well.
Your narrator is Jon Hamm. Enough said.
And finally, there’s Michael Sheen, who is superb as a supremely creepy, closeted but clearly gay talk show host who finds himself transfixed with Poole’s abs.
Here’s the comparison, and it isn’t a mockumentary, but an actual movie that turned out to be far better than it had any business being when it was first announced. “7 Days in Hell” reminded me of “MacGruber” in terms of how far it was willing to go to entertain its audience. No one is handing that film an Academy Award, but I laughed my ass off both times I’ve seen it. I’ve watched this one twice as well, but for more scholarly purposes. Who am I kidding? It was funny. I wanted to see some of it again. I missed a few things the first time through because I was laughing out loud in an empty room, which is more rare than it might seem.
When it was over, I realized the reason I enjoyed it so much. When HBO first passed it along to me, I was a little disappointed when I saw the running time. At just 45 minutes, it seemed inevitable that the finished product would have a rushed feel to it. That’s completely incorrect. If “7 Days in Hell” had been 90 minutes, it would have been half as effective while being twice as long. Here, the story, the characters, and the entirety of the film never wear out their welcome. When the credits finish rolling, you know it was worth your time. While I like Apatow, I’m glad he wasn’t a part of this project. Also, while the film is more about the writing than the technical, director Jake Szymanski (Saturday Night Live, Funny or Die) does a nice job of blending through the chaos and the craziness. It never feels slow, but you’re not out of breath at the end either. It’s out of control, but that has nothing whatsoever to do with the pacing.
It moves quickly, it’s damn funny, and it’s unapologetically subversive on every conceivable level. In short: WATCH IT. While it’s not going to be some kind of award juggernaut, it’s something you’ll be talking about well after its release. It’s imperfect and not every joke finds the mark, but the average is pretty darn high. “7 Days in Hell” is a welcome, lighthearted, clever addition to a solid summer television season. It requires a mere 45-minute commitment, just barely exceeding the time of the first set of Williams-Poole at the All England Club.
It’s unique and left me wondering what kind of lunatic could come up with it. The release is perfectly timed. You can see it on HBOGO beginning on July 8 and HBO’s premiere follows on Saturday July 11 at 10 ET. Wimbledon’s second week will be coming to a close, so some minds will be on the sport of tennis.
Is it an ace? Perhaps, though it will depend on your appetite for prurience with your comedy.
Is it a winner?
I’m @GuyNamedJason. Follow me there for all sorts of shenanigans and skullduggery.