Family Romance, LLC: A Strange Blend of Fiction and Reality
Werner Herzog has long been one of the most prominent and prolific directors to regularly oscillate between narrative and documentary filmmaking, and his fascinations with both forms are on full display in his latest work, as Family Romance, LLC blurs the lines between fact and fiction, utilizing amateur performers and real-life employees of the titular business to highlight a resource that similarly blurs those same lines. The real Family Romance provides a unique service: for a fee, you can rent their employees to act as friends, coworkers, or family members in a variety of social situations. Is your father too embarrassing to walk you down the aisle at your wedding? Family Romance can provide a loving stand-in. Make a critical mistake at work? Family Romance can give you a compatriot to take the blame. Their work will be good enough that — if you squint — you might even be able to convince yourself that their presence is authentic, at least for the brief period in which you’ve hired them.
Herzog primarily follows the proprietor of Family Romance, Yuichi Ishii, as he goes about his regular course of business. Ishii, playing himself, is charismatic and endearing — even as portions of the film are more obviously scripted than others, he remains an engaging focal point regardless of whether he’s moving the narrative along or merely planning out his next job. Though we’d consider him an amateur, he’s a natural in front of the camera — unsurprising, as his entire profession is predicated on his ability to act naturalistically — and he carries the emotional throughline with impressive aplomb. The film has its share of charming detours (including one particularly fascinating visit to a hotel that not only uses robot attendants as staff, but robot fishes in the lobby aquarium), but the backbone is Ishii’s role as a stand-in father. Hired by a woman whose daughter never knew her father, Ishii contacts the young girl and starts a fairly innocuous parental relationship, but as it progresses we see the potential that must have so fascinated Herzog — what happens when, for at least one party, the fiction becomes the reality?
But though the substance of the film is engaging, it’s held back by production value. Herzog shoots the film himself, and though there’s a certain intimacy, the visual style feels amateurish to the point of distraction. Combined with the film’s meandering nature and the uneasy merging of improvisational naturalism and more blatantly scripted conversations that lack the nuance of the movie’s quieter moments, it’s hard not to wonder whether the subject matter would have been better served if Herzog had chosen to more clearly operate in either the narrative or documentary lane instead of splitting the difference between the two forms — you may have lost the thematic mirroring, but perhaps could have strengthened the themes themselves.