If you're worried by the slight decline in quality Christopher Guest's movies have shown since the mighty Waiting for Guffman, you'll be elated to learn that a brand-new team of world-class mockumentarians has arrived on the scene. Their names? Werner Herzog, the celebrated director of Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre: The Wrath of God; and Zak Penn, the Hollywood writer/producer who's had a hand in everything from The Last Action Hero to Osmosis Jones Yes, comedy makes for strange bedfellows, but what's best about their inaugural collaboration, Incident at Loch Ness, is that it just might not be a joke at all.
Imagine if A Mighty Wind had starred the real Peter, Paul and Mary instead of Mitch and Mickey. Ponder the consequences had National Dog Show co-host John O'Hurley performed his own hound-handicapping duties in Best in Show rather than ceding the job to Fred Willard. Now you have some understanding of how delightfully disorienting it is to watch Herzog under the pretext of addressing a camera crew on hand to capture his creative process announce that his next project will be a documentary about the legend of the Loch Ness Monster. As guests gather at Herzog's California home for a dinner party, the intrepid filmmaker declares that he wants to explore the public's undying willingness to believe in the creature. Partner Penn, who's signed on to produce the Nessie doc, is just as enthusiastic about the prospect. But from the moment Penn walks into the party (professing total surprise that cameras are going to be tracking his every move), we sense that his decidedly commercial philosophy of cinematic achievement is at odds with Herzog's high-minded truth- seeking. If not, why is their handpicked cinematographer, Gabriel Beristain, asking questions about how to light "re-enactments"?
More important: Is any of this stuff real, or not?
The cognitive friction intensifies when the crew journeys to Scotland and begins a shipboard shooting tour around the Loch. Herzog is troubled by Penn's increasing intrusions onto his creative turf, and he's further vexed by certain experts the producer has invited along like sexy sonar specialist Kitana Baker (a self-admitted Playboy model in her spare time) and wild-eyed "crypto-zoologist" Michael Karnow, who explains that his field entails the study of animals that haven't yet been discovered. Um … OK.
Just as Herzog's distrust of the flagrantly mercenary Penn is growing, so is our suspicion of everything we're seeing. Even the best documentaries don't happen to capture every essential action the way Incident does, and real life is rarely as funny as Penn's insistence that the boat crew all wear matching uniforms. (How else to identify men overboard as "our guys"?) Then again, Lost in La Mancha taught us that filmmaking gone awry can look a helluva lot like grand farce. So who's to say what's genuine and what's not?
By the time we have enough ammo to arrive at an answer (a mite too early along the way to the film's somewhat drawn-out climax), it almost doesn't matter if Incident is a true-life cautionary tale or a knee-slapping put-on of mega-Punk'd proportions. Either way, the movie has made us question anew our faith in "reality" entertainment and visual representation in general. Every time we sit down in a theater or in front of our TVs, the movie reminds us, we're delivering ourselves into the hands of folks who may not have our best interests at heart. The most we can hope for is that they show us a good time. Fred Willard would surely agree.