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Werner Herzog has the kind of wide-ranging, long-lasting career that has very earned him at least enough benefit of the doubt that he will never, ever release a film that we can dismiss out of hand; I will not say that every new Herzog film is An Event (he releases too many for that to be the case), but at very least, every new Herzog film is coming from one of cinema's most singular minds of all time, and should be treated with the correct dignity that entails.

Counterpoint: while Herzog once upon a time pivoted freely and excitingly between documentaries that act like fiction and fiction films that have a great deal of documentary within them, it has been a long time since his fiction has been anywhere near as good as his non-fiction (I am soberly horrified to realise that in more than thirty years, I can only name one narrative film - 2009's The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call: New Orleans - that qualifies as top-tier Herzog). And Family Romance, LLC, one of no fewer than three Herzog pictures to see release in the United States in the benighted year of 2020, is ultimately a work of fiction, though it's doing everything it can to muddy that fact. I am sorry to report that it does not represent a return to form.

The film is about a real-world phenomenon that fits in awfully nicely with many of the director's ongoing preoccupations about the authenticity of artifice and how we build our own realities: a trend in Japan of "rental families", which started in the 1990s, in which people are able to hire professionals to pretend to be family or close friends, whether to help ease social situations (i.e. Dad is a dysfunctional alcoholic, but we need somebody to give away the bride), or simply to provide moral support in times of crisis. The specific story that caught Herzog's eye was a 2017 interview with Yuichi Ishii, founder of a company called Family Romance, who talked about the single mother who hired him to pretend to be her daughter's long-gone father, not telling the daughter about the subterfuge; Yuichi rather casually noted that his professional commitment meant that he would never tell the girl otherwise until the mother freed him to do so, even if that means that he'll take the secret to his grave.

Family Romance, LLC starts blurring the real/fictional boundary right at the start, by casting Yuichi (a "non-professional actor", the PR kit would have us say; but in what sense isn't he an actor, and apparently a damned convincing one?) as a character who shares his name, very early introducing the exact situation he laid out in that interview: Mahiro (Tanimoto Mahiro) is a 12-year-old with no memories of her father, and her mother (Fujimaki Miki) believes that she'd benefit from having a strong male presence. And so Yuichi makes himself available to the girl in whatever capacity she needs, ultimately reaching such a point of close emotional intimacy with the family that even he ends up taken aback by it, and starts to take steps to back away from the situation. Meanwhile, we see him and his employees at Family Romance performing their roles for various clientele; the aforementioned father of the bride role, as well as other odd scenarios, some of them much less fraught than others (and some of them arguably more, as in the "playing the corpse at a funeral without a body" job).

It's all certainly strange enough, but done with enough warm sincerity, to justify cinematic immortality, but having a hell of an engaging hook and actually being a well-done film aren't the same thing, and Family Romance, LLC falls down on two different fronts, which may well be related. One of these is the way the film has been produced: the movie was shot, guerilla-style, on the streets of Tokyo, with Herzog serving as his own cinematographer while grabbing moments quickly as his actors essentially improvised. I suspect this gave the director no small amount of joy, as he was able to capture raw, unpracticed moments with pure spontaneity; he has spoken of filming the actors speaking Japanese, a language he does not know, without a translation, trusting their voices and bodies to communicate the emotional truth of the moment they were performing. As shaped into a film, though, what I get is not so much spontaneity as aimlessness, moments that feel shapeless and sometimes entirely unmotivated, above and beyond how (there's no nice way to put this) damned ugly the footage tends to be. The movie is made out of shaggy hang-out moments with no "point", which is a legitimate strategy, but they don't always produce any sort of tangible results. For every scene that presents simple human emotions in all their unadorned glory, there's another that feels like we're watching dailies, spliced right into the final cut by accident.

The other problem is the ostensible emotional arc. Yuichi, the character, is obviously troubled by having people over-rely on him emotionally, and Yuichi, the business owner, has suggested that he views his company as providing a kind of therapy, useful to deal with moments of crisis but even more useful once you can start weaning yourself off of it, or doing away with it entirely. I am not at all convinced that this actually makes it into the movie. Family Romance, LLC falls into a tough spot where it's too agog at the odd moments it's capturing to really deal with them as manifestations as sincere emotions, and too committed to paying lip service to the idea that the clients are lost souls finding peace to embrace the quirky comedy of the material. And Yuichi himself, whether inevitably or by design, remains mostly unknown to us, a figure around whom events revolve, but not really the person through whom we experience those events.

It's no accident, I am sure, that the best moment in the film, which is also the most stereotypically Herzogian, is the one that feels the least connected to everything else. At one point, Yuichi visits a hotel staffed by lifelike human robots who exist in the most shadowy dell of the Uncanny Valley, observing them dispassionately as they offer assistance to guests checking in with a variety of tones of voice that are all united in failing to match the generic woman's face they're emerging from. This is not a horrific moment, but a reflective one, speculating on the robots' experience of reality more than the guests' experience, and you can figure out how that fits in the rest (Yuichi comparing himself to he robots as two different simulacra offering the illusion of human connection), but the way it has been shot and edited to create a lingering, close-up stillness feels nothing like the rest of the film, and quite a lot like Herzog's recent documentary work.

Does this mean that Family Romance, LLC should have been a documentary? I don't know - putting Yuichi into a controlled narrative context allows the film to generate a specific set of emotions that might not have worked in pure non-fiction. But even if a narrative feature was the right way to go, I'm not sure if this narrative feature was the right one; it has almost no momentum (and none at all in the first half), and a main character who is kept remote from us in a way that's not in the best interests of the film.  The whole thing is very interesting, but interesting is the starting point of storytelling, not the end of it, and this never comes together as more than a scattering of moments - some of them deeply compelling, some of them just kind of there, and none of them propulsive enough to fuel even just an 89-minute feature.