A Bomb in the Lasagna: “7 Days in Hell” is the Mockumentary Done Weird

SharkWeekBomb-02The moment when it becomes completely clear that the universe surrounding the tortuous week-long Wimbledon showdown between tennis players Aaron Williams (Andy Samberg) and Charles Poole (Kit Harington) is every bit as ridiculous as the tennis match itself is during a part in which Williams stands on trial in a Swedish court and the court sketch artist’s depiction of the proceedings look like a Disney cartoon. You see, the artist, having grown tired of realistic, accurate depictions of court hearings, decided to portray each one like cartoons. As the narration (John Hamm) recounts, the artists’ bold decision sparks a renaissance in the field of court sketches, with artists creating artful, and increasingly abstract sketches in his wake. The diversion into the finer points of Swedish court sketch artistry is just part of how, in just 45 minutes, 7 Days in Hellcreated one of the richest, and funniest comedy worlds of the year.

HBO Films

HBO Films

Filmed as a sports documentary, 7 Days in Hell recounts the events surrounding the 2001 Wimbledon finals matchup between the brash, disgraced American superstar Aaron Williams and tortured British tennis prodigy Charles Poole, and their increasingly absurd seven day match. 7 Days uses interviews with real sports commentators, celebrities, and athletes (including Serena Williams as Samberg’s in-film sister) in addition to its stable of comedic talent (including hilarious parts by Fred Armisen and Will Forte) to capture an authentic sports doc vibe. From there, 7 Days goes about eschewing all other traces of a recognizable version of our world.

A lot of mockumentaries find their strength in finding the ridiculous in a recognizable world. This is Spinal Tap and the rest of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries are filled with weirdos and bizarre occurrences, but weirdos and bizarre occurrences–give or take some spontaneous combustion– that are clearly grounded in the world as we understand it. 7 Days in Hell plays almost like a sports doc from another reality: Swedish prison cells are pleasant, Ikea furniture adorned apartments, Queen Elizabeth is an angry loose-cannon ruler, freely bandying about creative insults such as “fuckslut”, and people find Andy Samberg more attractive than Kit Harington. There’s a lot that you can say about the current crop big-screen comedies, but excellent world-building is not usually among there strengths. Every scene in 7 Days in Hell is so stuffed with jokes, both visual and spoken, that it weaves a thorough and thoroughly bizarre reality where a tennis match in which an on-court threesome is still not its weirdest factor.

It helps that the central competitors are fleshed out well. Andy Samberg isn’t exactly playing against type as a bro manchild, but he manages to make a character as eminently hatable as Aaron Williams a funny, and even tragic figure. Rising to prominence in the early 90s as the bad boy of tennis, he’s essentially the same sort of hedonistic burnout that he, Sandler, and Ferrel take turns playing, but Samberg finds the humanity– even if its the slightest kernel– in a raging cartoon of a tennis player. Imbued with far more pathos, but not nearly as funny is Harington’s Charles Poole. Forced into tennis from infancy by his scary mom (Mary Steenburgen) Poole is pathetic, dumb, and incredibly well-meaning, Harington portraying him like a deer a five feet away from the headlights through a series of interviews and press conferences. 7 Days is chiefly concerned with goofs over character moments, but there is a twinge of melancholy (and I do mean a twinge) in the rivalry of the two gifted losers.

HBO Film Seriously, you just kind of want to give the guy a hug.

HBO Film
Seriously, you just kind of want to give the guy a hug.

An HBO original special, 7 Days goes for the, er, features that HBO is probably best known for. Golly, there sure are a lot of dick jokes in this short. Clearly working within all that HBO gives them,, 7 Days really pushes jokes with nudity and sex, some of which is really funny and some of which is distracting. Sex jokes fill in places where clever, subtler jokes could have gone, and as result it feels like a film that occasionally wants things to be shocking or raunchy, without stopping to consider how funny these things actually are.

In 45 minutes, 7 Days in Hell creates a hilarious, exaggerated world and places two lovable f*ckups at its center (well, mostly lovable). Using a familiar tv sports doc form as its template, it’s able to mine the most from its world and its characters without overstaying its welcome or leaving things unsaid. 7 Days in Hell isn’t a mockumentary trying to find the ridiculous in the familiar, it’s trying to find something familiar in the ridiculous.

Find 7 Days of Hell on HBO, or through your friends’ HBO Go account.

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