For most of his career, Werner Herzog has oscillated between narrative and documentary features, injecting his idiosyncratic worldview into both of them. With the odd microbudget “Family Romance, LLC,” he brings those two modes together for his strangest movie of the decade, and that’s saying something for a guy whose 3D documentary on cave paintings ended with albino alligators.
A scrappy drama shot on the fly during a stopover in Japan, Herzog’s minor-key story revolves around Japan’s bizarre rent-a-family business, a concept so Herzogian it’s a wonder the filmmaker didn’t dream it up on his own. While the movie’s rough production values and meandering plot never quite gel, “Family Romance, LLC” is a fascinating convergence of filmmaker and subject, providing the rare opportunity for Herzog to bury his observations in the material at hand.
To some degree, however, the movie is a hybrid narrative that positions non-fiction elements in a narrative context. Yuichi Ishii stars as a man willing to play any kind of role for the right price — father, friend, coworker, you name it. But here’s the thing: Ishii really does work for an agency called Family Romance, and while he’s not exactly a natural screen actor, his solemn performance radiates with an intriguing level of authenticity as he goes about his strange gig.
As “Family Romance, LLC” begins, Ishii’s in the midst of his latest job, pretending to be the missing father for teen girl Mahiro (Mahiro Tanimoto), who’s none the wiser. As the pair roam through the cherry blossoms in Yoyogi Park and enjoy the scene, Ishii displays a degree of empathy for the young girl that has been missing her whole life, and she gradually opens up to him. Later, he briefs her mother on the session, sharing the insecurities and desires that the girl would never offer up herself. Ishii’s mannered approach exudes the cold professionalism of a financial advisor, but the process obviously takes a toll on him. He’s less con man than therapist, but with a moral compass completely out of wack.
“Family Romance, LLC” may as well be a documentary as it follows Yuichi through a series of peculiar jobs, so much that one can feel Herzog restraining himself from layering on his classic baritone voiceover to explain the deeper meaning of the work at hand. But despite some stilted performances and Herzog’s jittery, distracting camerawork, these scenes retain a fascinating, almost dystopian quality for the cheery way in which Yuichi’s disingenuous routine brings happiness to his clients lives, from a train worker who rents Yuichi to take the fall for a mistake at work to an older woman for whom he recreates a lottery win from earlier in her life to resurface a treasured memory.
With time, a story of sorts congeals around Yuichi’s relationship to Mahiro, who becomes so responsive to her father that she wants him to become a permanent part of her life. Yuichi, trapped between his commitment to the job at hand and the possibility that he might need to escape it, struggles to resolve his internal conflict. He may even have feelings for Mahiro and her mother, but good luck getting him to admit it. “We are not allowed to love or be loved,” he says.
There’s a fascinating capitalist indictment lurking beneath these scenes: In today’s gig economy, everything can be reduced to commerce, even emotional attachments to human beings, but nobody’s immune from getting too attached. This may be the closest the typically dark, chaos-obsessed filmmaker has come to making a family-friendly movie, as he douses the story in melodrama and sentimental music cues clumsily inserted into several scenes.
“Family Romance, LLC” has the bittersweet quality of a Disney story but the production qualities of a Lifetime movie, resulting in an experimental tone that never quite settles in one place. Herzog’s not the subtlest of filmmakers, and the movie’s dialogue rarely digs too deep into the crisis of conscience that Yuichi begins to experience. (The most he can muster to a peer is, “This is going too far, isn’t it?”) But Herzog’s control over the filmmaking process means that his capricious sensibilities occasionally lead the story on amusing tangents, including a bizarre visit to a robot hotel in which Yuichi gazes at an artificial fish swimming around for minutes on end. It’s a close cousin of Nicolas Cage’s private moment with an iguana in “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” another Herzogian riff on the troubled working man at odds with his profession.
Herzog’s best characters have an unreasonable obsession with nature, even as it overpowers them, from Fitzcarraldo’s dreams of building an opera in the jungle to Timothy Treadwell’s ill-fated decision to live with a bunch of grizzly bears. Yuichi joins those ranks, but his problem stems from a willingness to go up against human nature. This compelling sketch of a movie doesn’t exactly resolve his conundrum, but it provides a fascinating contrast to Herzog’s other explorations into the mysteries of the modern world. For the first time, he lets the material speak for itself.
“Family Romance, LLC” premiered as a Special Screening at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.