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It’s rare to find a title that so totally stops you in your tracks as Frankenstein’s Monster’s Monster, Frankenstein. It feels almost aggressively unwieldy, as if daring you to waste precious seconds of your life deciphering it. But even that doesn’t prepare you for how unconventional this film really is. Everything about it screams of a project that has no right to exist, least of all on Netflix. The streaming service that popularised binge watching would be the last place you’d expect to find a 30-minute one-and-done theatre mockumentary, though I’m certainly not complaining.
The premise sees actor David Harbour, of Stranger Things and ill-advised Hellboy reboot fame, trying to learn more about his deceased father, David Harbour Junior (yes, Junior, and played by Harbour for added confusion). His investigation leads him to one of his father’s lost works, the televised play that gives the film its ludicrous title. Harbour Jr. plays Dr. Frankenstein, who must pretend to be his creation, Frankenstein’s Monster, as part of a bid to secure research funding. His young assistant, meanwhile, must pretend to be the real Dr. Frankenstein. Also, his mother is dying and his niece is there for no reason.
In the utter incompetence and needless convolution of the play, the film gets most of its best gags. Harbour and the cast are clearly having a blast as they stride confidently around the cheap sets, delivering overblown, unworkable dialogue with relish. Crucially, they maintain the lack of self-awareness essential to making failure funny. You wouldn’t laugh at The Room if Tommy Wiseau was in on the joke, would you?
With multiple story layers and just a half-hour runtime, FMMF (no way was I going to keep typing that title out) flies at break-neck speed between present-day Harbour interviewing people who worked on the play and the play itself, taking pit stops at truncated comedy sketches. One of the best has Harbour Jr. in a parody of Orson Welles’ infamous drunk wine commercial, sitting at a fancy restaurant and slurring his lines over wine and steak.
Welles, or at least the idea of him, is Harbour Jr.’s most obvious influence. A classically trained actor, he pontificates about the nobility and purity of acting even as he performs in artless shlock. Because while there are many jabs at theatre and family history documentaries, the film’s true satirical target is the actor. Another sketch has Harbour Jr. appear on ‘The Actor’s Trunk’ in which he talks with deadly seriousness about using a tennis racket as a fencing mask. It’s fun stuff, even if the film never finds anything particularly clever or insightful to say about the pretentious actor archetype.
While far from perfect, FMMF is a true oddity and one of the most admirable projects I’ve seen in a long time. It hits you like an adrenaline rush, frantically shoves its ideas in your face and doesn’t so much end as take a sudden leap out the window. The fact that something like this exists feels like a subversive act and a promising sign that Netflix is opening up to new ideas of what it can be.