Reviewed by Mike Palovcsik
Reading the synopsis of this film in the official guide for the recently-concluded Wisconsin Film Festival, I was expecting a humorous story of quirky culture. What I was left with was the memory of a man in deep despair that stuck with me for days. Made by Danish filmmakers and based on Japanese subject matter, this documentary follows Ryuchi Ichinokawa, a married father of two who lives with his family in a small, messy home that he did not want to buy and cannot afford.
Ryuchi moonlights as a sort of gigolo, who rents himself out not to provide a night of companionship, but rather to pose as a friend or family member for someone in need of a facade (a father to grant approval to a boyfriend, a new husband to meet the ex, a boss to give a heartfelt toast at a wedding reception). It would be easy to assume that he owns and operates this bizarro service as a means to make ends meet and provide for his family. But as he gradually exposes his day-to-day life, you realize that this business is instead his way of HAVING a family at all, if only for fleeting moments. He gets legitimately teary-eyed when giving a wedding toast. And he doesn't tell his wife about his "night job" -- which really doesn't involve anything illicit or inappropriate -- because it would bare the truth about the fact that his clients are really stand-ins for his own essentially absent family. Actually, he doesn't tell his wife about much at all, including their dire financial straits, because she has absolutely no respect for him, and even less love. The only affection Ryuchi shows within his own household is reserved for the family dog. Just try to not let your heart break watching the scene where he explains to the the camera how his children don't even acknowledge Father's Day.
Ryuchi's story is probably better suited for a short-subject documentary. There are scenes that tend to drag on, and seem oddly out of place. Did we need the extended explanation of the family members' sleeping arrangements, which basically consist of their school-aged son sleeping in his mom's bed? (weird) To justify a feature-length film, I would have included more background on the customers that secure Ryuchi's service. What was it that drove a bride to spend $25,000 for the purpose of filling the pews with stand-ins at her wedding? An exploration of the corners that these folks must have painted themselves into before taking such drastic measures would have provided some much-needed comic relief amidst the dark suicidal tendencies of Ryuchi.
- Director Kaspar Astrup Schröder does not let the film become a fluff piece, engaging both Ryuchi and his wife to get to the bottom of their unhappy marriage.
- Being a fly on the wall while Ryuchi gives instructions to his 20+ employees as they are about to be stand-ins at an event, and trying to get them to keep the false details straight, was hilarious...especially when the charade doesn't come off as flawlessly as planned.
- The name of Ryuchi's business: 'I Want to Cheer You Up Inc.' - brilliant!
What didn't work?
- Extended scenes illustrating how the family dysfunction is also the responsibility of Ryuchi. As if that weren't obvious to anybody who has had any kind of relationship with another person, MANY minutes of film were devoted to Ryuchi staring at the television instead of engaging his family at dinner, or working on the web page for his business, or walking past his wife to pepper the dog with kisses for way too long.
- Actual footage of the meetings or events where Ryuchi is a stand-in often had every person except Ryuchi blurred out, which was distracting.
- There was no resolution to Ryuchi's situation. I love narratives with an open-ended closing shot, but this is real-life. I hope that since the making of this film he has turned a corner.
I was initially surprised at the gravitas of the story unfolding onscreen, and almost as quickly tired of it. A better balance between the cringe-worthy home interactions and the humorous client meetings would have kept me more engaged.
As a unique subject matter for a documentary (read: not about the U.S. waging war in the Middle East): B+
As a story to keep your interest piqued, even for a brief 80 minutes: C-