‘At least I didn't drag a boat up a mountain!'
Zak Penn's directorial debut is a full-on Blair Witch mockumentary that mines the persona and history of director Werner Herzog, the charismatic, eccentric German filmmaker who's made a career documenting or dramatizing strong-willed people facing extreme physical challenges (Land of Silence and Darkness), or bull-headed characters succumbing to some grand bouts of delusion (Grizzly Man).
Penn premise is two-tiered: while filming "Herzog in Wonderland," that film's documentary crew journeys with their titular subject from Hollywood to Scotland, where Herzog and his own crew are about to begin a documentary, "Enigma of Loch Ness," on the Loch Ness monster. Everyone plays themselves, but with an increasing absurdity that ridicules Herzog's situation of an adventurous filmmaker surrounded by Hollywood prima donnas doing an art film for their ego-driven resumes, and getting bogged down in his crew's bouts of arrogance, pettiness, and greed.
Penn is the lead idiot who begins to show his true colours when he insists everyone wear expedition jumpsuits with the misspelled word “Expeditition” sewn onto the backs; Oscar-winning soundman Russell Williams (Glory, Dances with Wolves) butts heads with the ship's captain about radio noise; and award-winning cinematographer Gabriel Beristain (Blade II) ultimately convinces Williams to abandon the project when it more or less dawns on them that two big-time studio artisans stuck on a boat waiting for a sighting of Nessie is no longer worth the effort.
Eventually Penn's own vision of what the Loch Ness project should be becomes apparent when a bizarro crypto-zoologist (Michael Karnow) is allowed to join the team (Herzog liked his beard) and Herzog discovers the sonar technician is former Playboy centerfold Kitana Baker (although she redeems herself from being the film's commercial ‘spice' by actually working the sonar to track Nessie).
Whether they find Nessie and capture the elusive creature/myth is immaterial because Penn's Incident at Loch Ness is ripe with plenty of pokes satirizing the creative rush, team cooperation, and risks that bond a production's personnel into a tight family whose lives are surrendered ‘for the good of the film.'
With the exception of Herzog, the personnel for Penn's Loch Ness documentary are way out of their league (including Penn, playing Herzog's producer), and there's zero camaraderie or willingness to make noble sacrifices for the good of the Nessie doc.
Like The Grand, Penn's improv/mockumentary on a mega-poker tournament, Incident at Loch Ness breaks up a linear narrative with interviews of the participants after the cast and crew have made it back to America, and while a fairly clever, often funny satire, the real joy is seeing Herzog having fun spoofing his own persona and idiosyncrasies (like a determination to serve detoxified yucca roots to dinner guests, and finding the right disposable razor – a reference that pays off in one of the deleted scenes archived in The Grand DVD.)
Everyone plays their roles straight (including Jeff Goldblum, who appears in the fake celebratory dinner at Herzog's ‘Wonderland' home), and the DVD commentary track reunites cast and crew in character – meaning they're all still pissed off at the events, embarrassments, and tragedies within the mockumentary's dented world.
Herzog and Penn play wounded and still divided ex-friends, and some of their reflections are very funny, particularly Herzog's pseudo-philosophizing which he expresses in his inimitable bizarre terminology.
Sure, there's no straight info on how the film was conceived and anecdotes about the production, but one gets a sense of the mechanics by virtue of Penn's camera always trained on the production team. There's also a meaty deleted scene gallery to round out this well-produced and very amusing poke at a vain industry that often forgets it's half-full of shite.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan