Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: Zak Penn
Writer: Zak Penn
Producer: Zak Penn, Werner Herzog
Stars: Werner Herzog, Kitana Baker, Gabriel Beristain, Russell Williams, David Davidson, Michael Karnow, Robert O’Meara, Zak Penn, John Bailey
A documentary expedition to Loch Ness in Scotland takes an unexpected turn for director Werner Herzog and his film crew.
Think of “This Is Spinal Tap” as being a mockumentary with its comedic tone turned up to eleven. And yes, that is an intentional reference. That would put “Incident at Loch Ness” somewhere around a two using the same scale. Which is not to say that “Incident” is unfunny, because it is very much dryly hilarious. It just means that while “Spinal Tap” is overtly upfront about its yuk-yuks, “Incident” is infinitely subtler, and deliberately keeps the audience at arm’s length before letting them in on the joke.
Things begin inauspiciously enough as a mockumentary within a mockumentary focused on famed filmmaker Werner Herzog, known as much for his unique personality as he is for his varied body of cinematic works. Herzog mills about his Hollywood home blathering about trinkets and preparing yucca root for a dinner party featuring celebrity friends like Jeff Goldblum and Crispin Glover in an appearance so brief it may not actually qualify as an appearance. Perhaps Glover was merely an illusion conjured by fellow guest Ricky Jay.
As Herzog himself puts it, “filmmaking is a chain of banalities” after all, a point emphasized by a montage of disposable razor purchasing at Rite Aid and standing in line for a Pink’s hot dog. These are among the movie’s first more apparent jokes, though even they are mischievously hidden in a straightforward style initially presented as something to be taken seriously.
“Incident at Loch Ness” is a boat planning to sink in a sea of satire from the outset, but it is perfectly comfortable taking on water slowly. Maybe a better way to put it is to rephrase the earlier analogy. If “Spinal Tap” is the Titanic striking a comedy iceberg in a thunderous crash, “Incident” brings that iceberg on board to melt at a steady pace. It takes more effort to notice the rising water, but passengers end up wet all the same.
Gradually, drips give way to gushes. Once faux producer Zak Penn unveils “official expedition jumpsuits” for everyone to wear, complete with “expeditition” mistakenly embroidered on the crew patch, a “now I get it” realization dawns about the kind of movie “Incident at Loch Ness” really is. Simultaneously lit is the light bulb of what the film means to accomplish as sardonic entertainment. It’s all in the way Penn deadpanly delivers his explanation for the suits: “If you fall in the water, this way we know you’re one of our team.”
When sandwiched into those moments of banality described before, screenwriter turned co-star Zak Penn is a terrible actor, and I’m not sure he would disagree. But when the mood grows into “Curb Your Enthusiasm” absurdity minus the Larry David theatrics, Penn’s overblown personality has a chance to shine as a wink-nudge sendup of typical Hollywood stereotypes. Herzog joins the fun by tweaking his tabloid-worthy reputation with a subdued silliness that cools any obvious tongue-in-cheek heat before it can boil into goofball camp.
Playing exaggerated versions of themselves, the personalities in “Incident at Loch Ness” don’t need outrageous antics to sell their story or their jokes. Situational chemistry makes the interaction appear incidental, and is wholly in keeping with the illusion of a documentary intended to feel authentic.
Bearded cryptozoologist Michael Karnow, resembling Bradley Cooper if he spent ten years living like a derelict, sincerely says things like, “they’re saying show us the evidence, I’m saying show us the non-evidence.” Such Sahara Desert dryness in the delivery anchors perfectly with snappier lines such as those that Penn unsurprisingly saves for himself: “I don’t want to point fingers … but I do blame David.”
The actual incident itself is probably a letdown in the grand scheme of things, although it is at least partially irrelevant and arguably meaningless in terms of what Penn and Herzog truly want onscreen. “Incident at Loch Ness” is no more about the search for a monster or the tribulations of a doomed film shoot than it is legitimately meant to fool anyone into thinking it is real. What the movie actually aspires to be is a genre-blending experiment in farce. It is a goal achieved, though as is usual in such comedic cases, its success is relative to individual tastes for wry humor and casual delivery.
Review Score: 75