Werner Herzog is one of the few major filmmakers whose work is literally and equally split between fiction and nonfiction: Over half a century, he’s steadily churned out both documentaries and narrative films, sometimes even making one of each on the same topic. With his latest project, Family Romance, LLC, Herzog comes closer than maybe ever before to finally just combining the two approaches within a single film. His subject is a Japanese company that allows clients to “rent” substitute friends and family members, essentially actors that will play whatever role in your life you need filled. To explore this phenomenon, the director casts CEO Yuichi Ishii as himself, following him around with a lightweight camera, shooting in the style of a vérité documentary.
Yet every scene and encounter we see is also plainly scripted, going far beyond the usual bends in truthfulness (like staging certain conversations) that Herzog makes in his docs. This is sometimes called constructed nonfiction, and for Herzog, it may be another attempt to capture the elusive truths (or “ecstatic truth”) that he often speaks of being his goal in filmmaking. And that approach theoretically suits the subject at hand here. Herzog, after all, is examining a livelihood that very explicitly blurs the boundaries separating reality from simulation of the same. Family Romance, which is essentially a non-sexual escort service, caters to a wide swath of needs, and so we see the employees occupy various roles — taking blame for a client’s workplace mistake by pretending to be the responsible party; masquerading as the father of a bride because her actual father has a destructive drinking problem; even getting fitted for a coffin, to play the guest of honor at a wake without a body.
As it turns out, Ishii isn’t just CEO of the business but also among its most popular “performers.” Though Herzog reenacts several of his weirder assignments, the plot revolves around one job in particular: playing the estranged father of a twelve-year-old Mahiro (Mahiro Tanimoto), who doesn’t remember her real father and hence has no idea she’s being mislead. Remarkably, that story element is plucked straight from Ishii’s résumé; he’s spoken before about a similar long-term gig, upholding the lie of parentage even as his faux-daughter has grown up and gone off to college. Which, of course, raises all kinds of questions, ethical and logistical. How can he and the girl’s mother keep up the charade when her social circle keeps growing? Aren’t they afraid that she’ll be destroyed if she ever finds out? How could anyone afford to keep paying for an indefinite father experience? Ishii has been candid in interviews on his conflicted feelings about the work, yet when the film’s plot turns to look at its subject’s thoughts about his profession, Family Romance, LLC doesn’t much raise his contradictions or psychology. Nor does hiring someone who plays other people to play himself on screen prove especially illuminating: Perhaps aware that he’s representing his company, too, Ishii comes across like a polite cipher.
And maybe there’s a point to that. If your job often entails faking emotions and forging phony relationships, will there come a time when you cease to be yourself, when you forget who you really are? But though Herzog builds this whole gently offbeat hybrid film around Ishii, he seems less interested in the man and more in the larger notion that all of modern life is a performance, and that there’s an element of role-playing in all relationships. We know this because the dialogue often bluntly underscores that idea. When, for example, Ishii discovers that Mahiro has misled him about where a particular Instagram photo was taken, Herzog can’t just let the implications speak for themselves — he has to force his protagonist to say aloud, “We’re both lying to each other.” At times, too, the director seems to compensate for the absence of his signature voice-over editorializing by turning his subjects/actors into mouthpieces.
Throughout, Herzog maintains a perplexed distance, marveling at the strangeness of this stranger-than-fiction business without ever quite grappling with it. Despite the meta framework, the film isn’t half as revealing as many of the past interviews Ishii has given on the trend. Perhaps the mixed-modes strategy wasn’t the right one for this material after all. A less conceptually slippery dramatization could complicate the unusual professional-personal relationships, unencumbered by the need to stay true to Ishii’s real-life experiences. Conversely, a more straightforward documentary might address the bigger questions Herzog barely grazes in fictionalization. Family Romance, LLC straddles the line between the two facets and finds no real “ecstatic truth” there. Like those eerily blinking concierge desk robots that we see in the movie, its’ all stuck in an uncanny valley. Mixing the bittersweet with the production qualities of a Lifetime movie, Family Romance, LLC ultimately is a film stuck at a distance, marveling the strangeness of its subject without fully grappling with it.
Family Romance, LLC is available to stream on Mubi