The concept of the mockumentary is more present than ever, through TV shows like The Office, Parks and Recreation and Modern Family. On the big screen, the patron saint has always been Christopher Guest, for his involvement in movies like Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, A Might Wind and This is Spinal Tap. I love those movies and almost anything with Guest’s name attached to it. But I realised something today, his documentary approach is pretty fast and loose, and easily abandoned for the sake of a good joke or getting an important plot point across. I realised this after watching the meticulous documentary-like approach to Bob Roberts.
Tim Robbins is the titular Roberts, a folk singing, ultra conservative Republican, running for election. He has built his own legend as a conservative rebel, singing songs to adoring supporters about how proud he is of his self made wealth, and his dedication to wiping out the drug problem in America. Aboard his combined campaign bus and stock market trading office, Roberts is making his way across the country, one stump speech at a time, one scandal (about himself or an opponent) at a time.
Along for the ride is his spin expert and campaign manager Chet MacGregor (Ray Wise), and underground reporter and determined truth seeker, Bugs Raplin (Giancarlo Espositi, AKA Gus Fring from Breaking Bad). There’s also Bob’s sycophantic supporters, following Roberts like he’s Jerry Garcia and they’re Dead Heads. The most prominent of which is played by a crazy young Jack Black in his movie debut. While mud is slung at Bob’s main opposition about an apparent affair with a young girl, Bugs Raplin may have found a much more disturbing skeleton in Bob’s closet.
Also smattered throughout, is a cavalcade of big names and famous faces, as Tim Robbins called in a few favours from his famous friends (and some soon the be famous friends) to help get his first movie as a director off the ground. People like John Cusack, Helen Hunt, Bob Balaban, Alan Rickman, Gore Vidal, James Spader, Peter Gallagher, Susan Sarandon and Jeremy Piven all make tiny appearances, and all make the most of their very limited screen time.
The extreme authenticity and documentary feel of Bob Roberts comes down to two very simple aspects, voiceover and talking heads. In a Christopher Guest movie, or a TV show like Modern Family, the voiceover and talking heads are generally restricted to the main characters. Here, Robbins lets the people on the sidelines tell the story. There’s a narrator, and most talking heads are people on the periphery, old friends and family members. I don’t think Bob Roberts ever once speaks directly to the camera. He’s living his life, not making a movie.
The character of Bob Roberts might be hypocritical, devious, manipulative and a republican, but that doesn’t mean that the movie of Bob Roberts is a one sided political attack. Like all good satire, it finds the worst of both sides and mines both for plenty of big laughs. In the world of Bob Roberts, it’s like an old joke by comedian Lewis Black, the rightwing is a party of bad ideas, while the left is a party of no ideas. Bob Roberts works because it’s an equal opportunity offender.