' Cinema Romantico: Tour de Pharmacy

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Tour de Pharmacy

Any Tour de France, the grande dame of multi-stage bicycle races, is rife with nefariousness we are told in “Tour de Pharmacy”, HBO’s recently premiered sports mockumentary chronicling a fictionalized version of the 1982 Tour de France in which farcical circumstances involving Finnish credit card debt lead to a race involving only five riders. We are told of this implicit nefariousness by Lance Armstrong, famous for winning the Tour de France seven times and just as famous for having those seven Tour de France victories voided on account of sanctions connected to doping. His presence on camera, in which he gives an anonymous interview where his identity is nonetheless revealed in a series of increasingly absurd ways, like sitting in a fur coat and cowboy hat to try and obscure his body shape, often feels queasily like an attempt by a confirmed asshole to save face by way of self-deprecation. It also speaks to how director Jake Szymanski is more content to lightly lampoon cycling’s culture of cheating than really try and satirically nail its ass to the wall.


Then again, someone else watching “Tour de Pharmacy” might find these Lance Armstrong bits hilarious. In fact, I’ve perused a couple other reviews that have cited them as highlights. Fair enough. That’s comedy, I guess, different strokes for different folks, and that is why Szymanski and writer Murray Miller are willing to do absolutely anything for a joke, going highbrow and lowbrow, obvious and obscure, getting cycling-specific and opting for tangents that have nothing at all to do with cycling. To explain blood doping, for instance, in which red blood cells are boosted to aid the cyclist’s performance, Szymanski and Miller create a spot-on middle school biology class-ish video before taking a hysterically bizarre turn that ends in a show-stopping cameo, which is a swift evocation of the whole mockumentary’s scene strategy. 1.) Cycling joke. 2.) Joke that deviates from cycling. 3.) Guest Star.

The guest stars are piled high, and, just like the jokes, will have to be graded on a viewer-by-viewer basis. It’s fun, sure, to see Kevin Bacon as the gleefully corrupt head of UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) and Andy Samberg as one of the Tour de France competitors, idiot American, Marty Hass (Andy Samberg), representing Nigeria because he is the heir to a West African diamond mine, but I found myself rolling even more with Maya Rudolph as a former Cycling Enthusiast correspondent emitting the air of a historian who already knows these stories inside and out. Even better is Jon Hamm’s narration, which is best when it is less overtly funny and more Hamm giving droll gravitas to lines like “There is an honor among thieves code in cycling.” I’d like to hear Jon Hamm narrate a documentary about Merv Bodnarchuk.

Once, while watching college football with my friend Rory, I turned the TV to a showing of the ESPN documentary “Fab Five”, recounting the exploits of the five freshmen who lit a fire under the Michigan basketball program in the early 90s, which happened to be remembering the moment when Chris Webber infamously called a timeout his team did not have during the 1993 National Championship game. What was most noticeable, however, was the doc drawing this moment out to such histrionic length that it became comical, so comical that Rory commented on it. I thought of this while watching “Tour de Pharmacy”, not because it somehow manages to work in a pretty good joke about the Fab Five, though unbelievably it does, but because, in the end, the mockumentary perhaps best mocks the self-seriousness of so many sports documentaries.

This is evinced not only in Hamm’s stately voiceover but in the way the documentary sort of forgets about the bike race as it proceeds because its characters sort of forget about the bike race as it proceeds, the abrupt about-face at the race’s end capturing how the riders become pre-occupied with other matters, reducing the yellow jersey to the piece of clothing it is. Jeff Goldblum, playing the older version of Marty Hass, captures it best in his impeccable Goldblum-ese. He says: “The stakes were medium.”

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