The ability to mash up genres should never be taken for granted. Many stories cannot sustain the stronger elements of other genres. Yet the process of making meta and medium-bending films has only become more common in recent years. Documentary has been the landing place of many of these films, where you can utilize the reenactment space to take creative swings. Starring Jerry as Himself from director Law Chen is certainly a swing. Featuring surprisingly great performances in the reenactments from co-writer Jerry S. Hsu, a story of an immigrant man’s covert ops recruitment becomes something far more powerful.
An immigrant from Taiwan, Jerry C. Hsu tries to live the American dream. He got married and has three children with his wife. While the two have divorced, they remain close as he manages some of her money. One of his sons needs a loan to assist with a house, while another is dealing with his own child. Jerry finds himself alone when he suddenly gets a call from the Chinese Police. They believe Jerry is a participant in a money laundering scheme and are ready to extradite him back to China. However, when Jerry asks how to avoid this, the police recruit him as a covert agent.
Much of Starring Jerry as Himself hinges on how Chen shoots the film. While it begins as a fairly normal documentary, he turns the entire film on its axis. What begins as a limited aspect ratio suddenly widens, literally taking us into a bigger world. For the reenactments, Jerry plays himself (as the title would suggest), and we dive deeper into the conspiracy.
Much of Starring Jerry as Himself begins to grow more and more absurd. It’s easy to question if any part of the story is real and why Jerry would become the subject of such an investigation. The film plays into his status as an unreliable narrator. However, Jerry is not the only one playing himself in the reenactments. His sons and wife do the same, while professional actors populate the remaining cast. Chen never pushes his performers out above their abilities, and as a result, it helps the reenactments feel far more cinematic.
Starring Jerry as Himself also shows off masterful meta-humor. Films like Leonor Will Never Die, and Dick Johnson is Dead have captured this kind of humor before. Using high-end production design and well-crafted sets to bring artificiality to a documentary that highlights the paradox. Yet many of the settings are unmistakably real. This critic lives in Orlando, Florida, and with the film’s setting, there are many local landmarks featured in the background. It’s wonderful to see Orlando represented on film, and as a result it adds a tactility that sold the experience.
Starring Jerry as Himself should not be this good, but the genre-bending approach helps it soar. Jerry is an undeniably fascinating subject of a documentary, and the film’s message becomes extremely powerful. Emotion pours out of the film over its last thirty minutes. Perhaps most important of all, it begins to circle important issues that have only become more relevant in the last few years. Combining its style, its humor, and the sincerity it carries itself with, Starring Jerry as Himself should be an indie darling that draws considerable attention.