Phil Rosenthal has had the good fortune of being the show runner on a widely popular show in Everybody Loves Raymond that was based on the experiences of himself, his friend and star Ray Romano or of his writers. As the show was ending, he was presented with an interesting proposal by Sony (the studio responsible for the show); the possibility of tailoring the show to international tastes, with Russia being a test market of sorts. Despite some initial apprehension and anxiety, Rosenthal agreed, and the trials and tribulations of seeing the show through to a reality in Mother Russia are documented in Exporting Raymond, a documentary written and directed by Rosenthal.
As a stranger in a strange land, the only things that Rosenthal seems to know about Russia these days are what he sees in the news, mainly some periodic violence, Russian mobs and an occasional flirtation with Cold War behavior. Before leaving, he is even offered the chance to buy insurance against kidnapping, something that doesn't happen so much but even if it did, as a person on the crew of the Russian show tells us, Rosenthal probably is not worth kidnapping as it is. It would even seem that many of Rosenthal's experiences cater to the fear he had before coming to Russia. He asked his driver semi-jokingly (a man who almost ditched Rosenthal in the cold wet weather outside of the airport moments after meeting him) if he knew Alexander Litvinenko, the Russian who died from radiating poisoning in 2006. The driver did not know Litvinenko, but knew the man who did the poisoning, saying basically that the man was a grade ahead of him at University. It's not indicative of the types of events Rosenthal experiences, but the vague and mysterious nature of the Russians he deals with feels awful close.
Consider for a moment that in his first face to face meeting with the Russian crew members, the most resistance (or at least the most vocal opinion in the room) is that of the costume designer. But it's this type of personality that is a quiet yet firm barrier that others in the room seem to share and it prevents Rosenthal from achieving a true collaboration with the Russian team. Raymond was shot with four cameras and in front of a live studio audience, conveying the experience of attending a play, one of Rosenthal's intentions. The Russians prefer less cameras and no audience, which would seemingly deprive the show of what Rosenthal thinks it needs most. The show eventually retools, allowing Rosenthal to return to America before coming back to Moscow several months later with changed cast and crew, including a director who makes music with enema bags, which is exactly how it sounds.
However, rather than be a document about how wacky the Russians are, Rosenthal attempts to do other things with the film. He wants to understand the Russian family dynamic so that perhaps it can benefit how he watches the things that are occurring in front of him on set each day. Through this learning process he also loosens the reins of his vision a bit. Perhaps the Raymond American audiences witnessed for almost a decade is going to be different than the Raymond (or in this case, Kostya) that Russian audiences might see. Through his learning, he discovers that the family dynamic is at the very least shared, but the method in how this is communicated is something that Rosenthal might not have the facilities to accomplish because if nothing else, he's not Russian. As he mentions in the film it can only be his vision for so long before the Russian cast and crew try to make it their own, and it's that that he learns about while in Russia. But within Exporting Raymond, I think that Rosenthal might have stumbled onto a more subtle message during the process, intentional or not.
I think that irrespective of how many different levels of entertainment bureaucracy that Rosenthal experienced in Russia, listening to him in a couple of different interviews as the film was being released theatrically leads me to this that this is also has some well-aimed jabs at the ordeal that maybe he and/or other show runners have had to endure in America to get their shows to air. Whether it's a meeting to get a possible lead for the show to be released from his commitment to the Moscow Art Theatre or being softly told by the Director of Entertainment for Russian television that the show "is not funny," I think Rosenthal's message is all the more universal: there are various people who are placed in positions of power which detaches them from a relationship to creativity. Put simply, unfunny people who are put in positions to tell others what funny and isn't doesn't work, and it doesn't work over there as much as it does over here (and depending on who you ask, occurs far more often over here more than in Russia). Rosenthal experienced these issues in the past, and his way of dealing with them remains the same: "Do the type of show you want to make because they're going to cancel you some day anyway." And while Everybody Loves Kostya might not be his show, seeing that he's comfortable with that along with what came out of experience appears to have benefited all involved.
While there are moments where Rosenthal goes for a quick joke (as Jason Bailey alluded to in his review), Exporting Raymond remains a funny and entertaining look at an American trying to make his show work for Russian audiences. Hopefully Rosenthal can remember these experiences and they should serve for other television show runners placed in a similar position. Without the kidnapping insurance of course.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Presented with an AVC encode and in 1.78:1 high-definition, Exporting Raymond is solid if not unspectacular viewing. The documentary has to juggle handheld camera film along with audition tapes and film from the Russian and television shows, and it's handled about as well as can be expected. Flesh tones and colors are replicated accurately as possible without oversaturation, and the resulting viewing isn't that much better than what would appear on a standard definition disc, but I was fine with this material.
As is the case with Sony titles, Exporting Raymond gets a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, though with this particular title, the lossless track is not called upon to do much hard labor. Save for a creaky old elevator in one sequence and the use of a Britney Spears song in another, the film is a predominantly dialogue driven affair occurring in the front speakers. Little occurs in the rear channels, to say nothing for directional effects or channel panning. That said, the dialogue is consistent and balanced in the front of the soundstage and requires little user adjustment. The film is solid listening on Blu-ray.
The big extra on the disc is a commentary from Rosenthal. I was looking forward to him providing some more context and anecdotes to what was occurring after the cameras went off or weren't around, however those moments are disappointingly few and far between. The predominant tone of the track pretty much amounts to "Yes, all of this really did happen!" along with some cast and crew nods to his show thrown in for good measure. He recounts how and why he took the job to help make a Russian version of the show, and his frame of mind in going over there. He also discusses some minor scene and show breakdown to help illustrate the differences between the American and Russian versions of the show. It's not quite the track I was looking for, but it's still decent nonetheless.
To further extend the comparison exercise, the Russian and American versions of the show with two of the episodes shown in the film ("Baggage" and "The Family Bed"). One of the bigger takeaways I got from this is that Rosenthal's point about a live audience giving the actors a chance to feed off of the energy and thus improve their performances. The Russian shows are a bit stilted and stoic, with what sounds like a laugh track of three people lightly dusting over a scene here and there. You can see that the creative team has made the show their own in Russian, which might have been the thing Rosenthal took away from this experience as is. It's a nice compare and contrast to be sure. Nine deleted scenes (11:16) follow and a couple of them could certainly have made the final cut without dragging the film's pace down, and the trailer (2:26) and a small feature called "Old Jews Telling Jokes" (where Rosenthal's dad Max tells a chuckle worthy gag) round the disc out.
Exporting Raymond has moments of hilarity and surreal "I can't believe it" moments with an underlying thumb in the eye of Hollywood done all the way from Moscow. Technically it's not special and the supplements are decent, but even if you've never seen Everybody Loves Raymond, Exporting Raymond is absolutely worth your time to watch and laugh at.