Phil Rosenthal in "Exporting Raymond." (Nicholas Weissman / Samuel…)
In sitcom savant Phil Rosenthal's world, truth is at least as strange as fiction and usually it's funnier, which works to his advantage in the very entertaining cultural exchange that is "Exporting Raymond."
Rosenthal's documentary writing-directing debut chronicles his attempts to help Russian television translate "Everybody Loves Raymond," the Emmy-winning CBS comedy he created and ran for nine seasons, for the country of Dostoevsky and Chekhov, the Kremlin and the KGB. So not exactly jokesters.
Sony Pictures Entertainment, which was behind this venture (exporting the series and undertaking the documentary) had had great success with "The Nanny." The process was a straightforward one: Take existing scripts, translate them, use a Russian cast and "action."
But the very nature of "Raymond," renamed "Everybody Loves Kostya," was problematic. While the "Nanny's" humor was broader, "Raymond" was more like real life, and that, the Russians explained to Rosenthal, wasn't funny. It's an argument cleverly fought in part by juxtaposing clips from the original show and the Moscow production team's very stolid revisions, though since the film targets a U.S. audience, it's like playing with a stacked deck.
Still it makes for some side-splitting moments. Fruit of the month club? They don't have one, will bottled water do? Jeans and sneakers on Ray's long-suffering wife? Couldn't they class it up with cocktail dresses and heels? Given the costume designer's dominatrix style, it's not clear who will win that round.
The biggest hurdle, though, was Ray. In the original, the character closely mirrored the deadpan, self-deprecating comic style of its star, Ray Romano. Much beloved here, for the Russians a family patriarch pushed and pulled between parents, wife and brother was no laughing matter.
But poking fun at conflict is Rosenthal's day job, so in resisting, the Russians, in a sense, have lobbed him a softball — one that he should have, but didn't quite, hit out of the park. Nevertheless there is amusement in the dour network executives, overworked sitcom writers and major casting disagreements, particularly in a world where theater trumps TV, painful when the top choice for the lead's contact is at risk.
Rosenthal himself proved to be the secret weapon. Stick thin, wide-eyed, ever ironic, always worrying, he could be Romano's sardonic soul brother. Watching him navigate the world — here and abroad — is like an extended episode of the series. His parents' attempt at a Skype conversation after he's in Moscow is classic.
In Russia, the film zeroes in on the considerable logistics of launching the show. Simple requests like filming before a live studio audience become almost insurmountable. Working with cinematographer Geoffrey O'Connor, the director sets a leisurely pace that fits the conversational tone. There are no grand insights, but in all the fretting and frustration, the filmmaker cracks a window into the new Russian soul, albeit a tiny one. Still, as Rosenthal fights to ensure the essence of "Ray" doesn't get lost in translation — that family is family, no matter the country — the footage leaves you wondering if there aren't very good reasons the Russians don't always agree. Dostoevsky this is not.