By Eric Kohn | Indiewire April 23, 2011 at 6:34AM
In 2009, as Iceland struggled to survive its debilitating economic crisis, local comedian Jón Gnarr came up with an unlikely solution. Launching "The Best Party" initially to satirize the country's ineffectual and power-hungry leaders, Gnarr's farcical campaign to become the mayor of Reykjavik slowly gained momentum, a phenomenon that culminated with his election last year. A deadpan humorist with equal doses of Jon Stewart understatement and the is-he-punking-us irreverence of an Andy Kaufman sketch, Gnarr essentially charmed his way to political legitimacy on the basis of good punchlines.
That's the saga recounted in "Gnarr," an entertaining portrait of the 2010 mayoral campaign that more or less assumes the perspective of its subject. Director Gaukur Úlfarsson follows Gnarr through his loopy media blitz and various speaking tours, demonstrating the candidate's insistence on maintaining his comic appeal. Precedents for this type of project include Nick Doob's "Al Franken: God Spoke," which tracks the future Senator of Minnesota, although in that movie Franken eventually sacrifices some of his jokes in order to get taken seriously.
Gnarr has no need for that sort of compromise. His run came at a time of low morale for the country's largest city and his broadly defined platform picked up speed largely due to his infectious insistence on having fun. Joined by a brain trust of punk rockers, including one from original Bjork band Sugarcubes, Gnarr asserts that "the city can be run on comedy" and would rather talk about his love for "The Wire" than any serious political topic. His biggest promises take the form of bizarre non sequiturs, including the resolutions to bring free towels to the city pools and introduce a polar bear to the zoo.
It's impossible not to wonder about the root of Gnarr's cause, but Úlfarsson doesn't dig too deep. You have to dig around to fill in the blanks: The polar bear thing, for example, alludes to global warming problems; the free towels are a means of attracting tourists to the area by fulfilling a European Union requirement that would turn the city's pools into official spas. Icelandic audiences may already know these things and simply enjoy the opportunity to watch Gnarr during the course of his meteoric rise. Others may feel that Úlfarsson glosses over some of the meatier details, although there's enough onscreen to prove while Gnarr constantly horses around, he does so without sacrificing his sincerity. "They think I live in a comedy bubble," he says of his detractors. "But I'm not a comedian when I pay my bills."
Gnarr's insistence on maintaining his sense of humor continually befuddles his straight-faced competitors, which only helps his cause. "We are professional politicians," he's told, and quickly fires back, "I'm not paid anything." That knee-jerk capacity to stay above the criticism explains the how, if not the why, of his victory.
Still, it's hard to shake the feeling that, at its core, "Gnarr" is a film sanctioned by the campaign. As a result, the movie lacks the even-handed qualities that would deepen its analysis of Gnarr's unique career shift, as well as its symbolic qualities. However, Úlfarsson's behind-the-scenes access includes enough details to explain Gnarr's success with voters: He refuses to compromise on the serious business of being funny.
HOW WILL IT PLAY? With Gnarr's story gaining popularity around the world, the movie should play tremendously well on Cinetic's VOD platform.
criticWIRE grade: B