The concept of “stranger than fiction” is a fascinating one. It’s the idea that fiction writers are actually limited in their storytelling ability because if they reach too far, their audience won’t believe it’s real, even when weird things happen every day. It’s this concept that’s behind Exporting Raymond, from writer/director Phil Rosenthal. The problem is that just because something’s strange doesn’t mean it’s funny, and that’s going to have a negative effect when you’re making a documentary that’s also supposed to be a comedy.
The film is centered around Rosenthal, who happens to be the Emmy winning creator of the hit television series Everybody Loves Raymond. Following the end of the series, Rosenthal is contacted by Russian network executives who want him to fly to their country and help in the creation of a Russian version of his show. A helpless fish out of water, every step he takes is met with resistance, be it his casting choices, his desire to have a live-audience at the taping or how he wants the characters to dress.
Relying heavily on awkwardness and Rosenthal’s Woody Allen-esque persona, there are plenty of laughs to be had. Ranging from relatable (ex. Rosenthal’s parents’ attempt to contact him via Skype) to goofy (ex. a Russian family he visits makes him take shot after shot of Vodka), there are many scenes that will cause you to burst out laughing, while the various cultural differences are poignant and funny without being insulting. The Russian peoples’ love of Britney Spears because of her embrace of “style over intent” is hilarious and seems ridiculous until you remember how many number one singles Spears has had in our country.
What Exporting Raymond struggles with, however, is timing, which any comedian will tell you is key. Many of the scenes drag on way past their expiration date, while others, that aren’t really funny to begin with, are given an egregious amount of screen time. One moment in particular has Rosenthal going to a military museum with his bodyguard, but he doesn’t have any interest in the items on display. Trying to stay engaged, he asks his bodyguard about his time in the military, which is interesting because it provides some perspective, but the scene isn’t humorous at all and lasts five minutes. In this way the documentary format ends up being quite limited: the simple truth is that not everything and everyone is funny.
In addition to being a partially successful comedy, the film is also a partially successful documentary, in the way that it does actually have a message. While masked in a plot about a man trying to sell a television show to people who don’t seem to have a real interest in the television show that he is selling, it’s also very much about exploring the many differences between American and Russian life. One of the reasons why Rosenthal has such a hard time working on the show is because Russian men are meant to be the dominant force in their household, which is the complete opposite of what happens in Everybody Loves Raymond. It’s simplistic, but interesting nonetheless.
Considering the interesting characters and ripe-for-comedy plot, Exporting Raymond could have been an incredible scripted comedy, but instead it ends up being hurt by its “stranger than fiction” approach. Though the film is, more often than not, entertaining and interesting, one must wonder about its greater potential.