Starring Jerry as Himself review: A vital genre-bending documentary experiment

Starring Jerry as Himself, starts off with a disproportionately familiar snapshot of the titular, retired Florida resident who receives a strange phone call one day from the Chinese police. He is informed of some criminal who has been impersonating him. Jerry, who has spent his entire life in service has had no such undercover linkages, is shocked. He wants to stay away from harm and do his best in keeping his family safe. So he complies. It all plays off like a grand, notably orchestrated gamble. Or so it seems. (Also read: Silent Love review: Polish docu-drama fosters hope in the face of discrimination)

Just as one gets a little too close to dismiss the predictable route of Starring Jerry as Himself, the startling film by debutant director Law Chen which premiered at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, it shifts ground towards a baffling route that leaves you off balance. The genre-bending work from director Law Chen is unlike anything you’ll ever see this year. In the crowded, formulaic template of multiverses, Starring Jerry as Himself is here to blur the very line between documentary and fiction feature to create its own version of both- in service to the story and to the truth. At one moment its unfolds like a crime thriller, and next you know, it has morphed into a documentary. It creates its own multiverse of genre. Groundbreaking in its transparency (that title enough is a testament to the film’s playful unpredictability), Starring Jerry as Himself cleverly avoids feeding onto genre elements to push the boundaries of the storytelling format.

As Jerry finds himself entrenched in the seemingly covert scheme to find the resolution, Chen’s film transforms into its own spy universe. Although he cares deeply for his three sons Joshua, Jesse and Jonathan (also the producer of the film), he doesn’t inform any of them of what has been happening. They see their father attending to regular phone calls and become surprisingly reserved. The police officers, only know to Jerry, make sure that he feels secure whenever he is being called. Adorned with his shaky confidence, the old man takes on a journey that grows increasingly volatile. At certain points, the transition from reality to fantasy is audacious, and endeavors to set a make-believe scenario will instantly catch you questioning what exactly is this leading to? This technically potent exercise in meta-construction does not always work, and there are moments in the middle where the enigma feels slightly worn out.

Yet, it is in the final few minutes of Starring Jerry as Himself, when the film finally reaches its shocking denouement to break the carefully constructed wall with the audience. The effect is galvanizing. What began merely as an interrogation of a family to cater to a curious case of feature film sensibilities turns the axis towards itself. It will surely raise eyebrows and divide audiences, but there’s no denying the power of its utterly singular creative sensibility. Starring Jerry as Himself works as much an experiment as it builds a coda for re-imagining the immigrant family experience at its core. It is also a ferocious portrait of the American Dream and what reality it holds for so many of the senior citizens of the country. Law Chen has created an endlessly original and poignant piece of documentary exercise that cuts like a double-edged sword.

And as long as Jerry Hsu confronts the diabolically charged scenarios with his endearing presence, Starring Jerry as Himself manages to run steady. Jerry’s ‘performance,’ is more than just a performance, and what holds this constantly shifting, absurd beast of a film together. The vitality of his story is deeply affecting. At the Slamdance Film Festival, the Jury made an unprecedented move and awarded the acting award to Hsu, completing the trifecta of awards with the Grand Jury Award and the Audience Award. It totally makes sense why.

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