I don’t often get the chance to review a documentary film for the general consumption because, well, there aren’t that many out there in the local rental outlets. So when I found “Exporting Raymond” down at the nearest Redbox, I was surprised and pleased, having read good things about the movie. (The young man at the Hy-Vee checkout counter asked if my wife had told me to get it and wondered aloud why I hadn’t seen “Transformers 3”: sometimes you just can’t win.)
The “Raymond” in question refers to the long-running TV sitcom, “Everybody Loves Raymond.” The action of the documentary entails the efforts of that show’s director, Phil Rosenthal, to get a Russian version of the show underway. Rosenthal—who must have known things wouldn’t go smoothly—took along a camera and sound man to follow him around Moscow as he has his anxiety repeatedly confirmed. (Early on, he’s warned to take out some “K and R”—for kidnapping and ransom—insurance before going.) He functions as producer, director, writer and star and does so with aplomb and considerable comic panache.
Rosenthal intends to export the kind of “real family” sitcom that he grew up on and loved. He hopes to make a connection with his Russian counterparts, and, thus, to the ordinary Russian family. His first disillusion occurs when the potential costume designer assures him that Russian audiences will not accept a TV housewife who does not wear designer clothes to do the laundry. Then the writers for “Everybody Loves Kostya” don’t laugh at the taped episodes of “Raymond” that Phil brings along, and they inform him that the central figure is “too soft” for the Russian male to identify with.
After butting his head against this wall and several others in the Russian TV industry, Phil begins to suspect that his idea of comedy may not be universally shared. The biggest studio in Moscow looks like an abandoned factory. He is told that “selling” the product is more important than the product itself. And he’s not allowed to have a live audience for the show—a critical piece for Rosenthal—because they can’t afford the chairs.
The longest-running problem, though, turns out to be casting, in particular the Kostya/Raymond character. The Russians want an over-the-top physical comedian, as opposed to the laid back Ray Romano who made the role his own here. Even Phil’s observation that the guy the producers choose just doesn’t make people laugh fails to win them to his choice.
Finally, when Phil starts to give up some control, things start to click, director Rosenthal wisely choosing not to make Rosenthal the “star” infallible. He is, as he admits, a stranger in a strange land, so he finally says, “The show’s for them: they have to make it their own.” The ultimate resolution of the various conflicts, then, comes as both a surprise and no shock at all, as does Rosenthal’s observation that individuals—rather than nations—are particularly difficult, a mixed bag at best.
“Exporting Raymond” is rated “PG” for “brief language and smoking” (!) but presents no dangers to the morals of youth, who are likely not to get much of its rather droll humor anyway. One doesn’t have to be familiar with “Everybody Loves Raymond” to get it, though it wouldn’t hurt. If you want to watch the documentary—and aren’t into Netflix—you might have to scramble, but it’s worth the effort.