Review: Werner Herzog contemplates rent-a-family culture

In the curiosity shop that is the oeuvre of filmmaker Werner Herzog, “Family Romance, LLC” fits right in. Though a slighter offering, it continues Herzog’s fascination with the enigmatic nature of humanity, this time via the longstanding Japanese phenomenon of renting people to pose as relatives, friends or colleagues.

The film opens with a longish scene in which a father meets his 12-year-old daughter Mahiro after a decade’s absence, and they spend time in a Tokyo park enjoying the cherry blossoms. It’s both awkward and touching, but we soon learn the man (Yuichi Ishii) is an entrepreneur hired by the girl’s mother to impersonate her ex-husband, who disappeared years earlier.

An added twist is the fact that Mr. Ishii is, in real life, that is real real life, a businessman who runs a company called … Family Romance. He was even featured in a 2018 segment on Conan O’Brien’s show, in which the comedian rented a family during a trip to Japan. (Mahiro, who plays the daughter here, is also seen in the “Conan” bit, shot after Herzog made his film.)

As the relationship with Mahiro continues, we also see Ishii rendering services to other clients: providing a father to walk a bride down the aisle; allowing a former lottery winner to once again feel the exhilaration of being the chosen one; helping an aspiring starlet create a viral moment with fake paparazzi; and accepting a supervisor’s berating on behalf of a disgraced railway worker.

It’s a premise full of intrigue. Is Ishii simply an actor or an emotional stuntman providing comfort of the heart to people in a lonely world? What are the ethical considerations? What does it say about how our brains process fake relationships? Don’t movies offer us a similarly manufactured experience?

Herzog, who also wrote the screenplay, clearly relishes the contradictions as he blurs the line between reality and drama (or is it deadpan satire?), but “Family Romance, LLC” can’t always bear the weight of the questions. Acting as his own camera operator, Herzog largely appears content to observe the ritual dance embedded in the multiple layers of artifice, and the film drags at times; its lean, vérité approach lacking the narrative thrust to fully engage.

But in the final act, the film embraces some of those larger points, and Herzog ends with a striking final image leaving us to contemplate the transactional nature and true cost of all human relationships.

‘Family Romance, LLC’

In Japanese with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes

Playing: Available July 3 as a free preview, and then streaming starting July 4 on Mubi

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