Slamdance Review — “Starring Jerry as Himself”
“What is a true story?” asks the opening title cards of Starring Jerry as Himself. It’s a valiant question to ask, and one that documentaries pose every time they put a subject in front of their camera and press record. Sometimes there’s no personal connection between the filmmaker and the focus of their documentary. Other times, as in the case of Starring Jerry as Himself, it’s personal. This documentary, which shirks many of the genre’s conventions, follows Jerry as he inadvertently becomes an undercover agent for the Chinese police to help solve an ongoing money laundering investigation.
Instead of having Jerry and his family sit in a room and look directly at the camera to retell this outrageous story in a more traditional manner, Starring Jerry as Himself puts the family back in the action. Jerry and the immediate members of his family star as themselves and relive the anxiety of this investigation. Some of the people who couldn’t possibly play themselves in this film, like the Chinese police officers, are played by actors. That fact, coupled with the stylized camera shots and lighting that don’t belong in a verité method of documentary, creates an odd sensation for the viewer. An almost dream-like version of reality that the audience must wade through on its own. Is Jerry a reliable narrator?
While the audience is in the thick of it, it’s easy to get lost in the larger money laundering conspiracy. It fluctuates from potentially possible to one of those money scams played on older folks. Prying questions from the bank employee (Nick Bailey) could come across as nosy or as further proof that there’s something sinister happening here. Of course, the answer to that question won’t be revealed here. It’s much better unraveled over the course of Starring Jerry as Himself’s runtime.
Starring Jerry as Himself manages to pull off something of a magic trick. Not only is the film a compelling documentary that keeps audiences guessing, it also stands alone as a work of scripted fiction. Which brings us back to the question that was posed at the beginning of the film: what is a true story? It’s a question that humanity will likely never be able to answer because human memory is not reliable. John Green wrote, “You don’t remember what happened. What you remember becomes what happened.” Such is the case with Jerry. So much of what happened was something only he experienced. This film is Jerry’s memory, for better or for worse.
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