Early on Thursday morning, Seth Meyers tweeted out that the latest episode of Documentary Now! “is the most Fred Armisen-y of concepts.” And the co-creator of the series would be right. “A Town, A Gangster, A Festival” explores the wacky customs and costumes surrounding an Al Capone Festival in Árborg, Iceland. Written by Meyers and Armisen, the episode is a Bill Hader-less one all around—and all the less richer for it.
Let’s set the record straight: An Armisen-centric Documentary Now! isn’t a bad thing, but we’ve seen him juxtapose characters and cultures before. Sans Hader, the episode seems like the love child between a Portlandia sketch and a Christopher Guest movie. Whereas previous episodes riffed on existing, specific documentaries (Grey Gardens, Nanook of the North, The Thin Blue Line and Vice on HBO), “A Town, A Gangster, A Festival” feels much more generic.
Located about 40 miles east of Reykjavik, Árborg (a real town) takes three days around Jan. 17 to celebrate the Al Capone Festival (not a real festival). The citizens gear up in a myriad of ways: A local artist creates papier-mâché headdresses of Al Capone’s visage, as well as ones for the cops who’ll chase Capone through the streets. It’s like the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, but substitute people in Al Capone masks for the bovines. In other parts of town, members of the North Side Gang hone their old-timey jazz skills for the festivities, and the local baker makes mini-deep dish pizzas, aka “authentic gangster pizza,” which he learned the recipe after a trip to Pizzeria Uno in Chicago. Even the schoolchildren of Árborg are indoctrinated into the 50-year tradition at an early age. Their teacher shows them how to hold cigars properly and also identify and draw Tommy guns to embellish their drawings of Capone.
The classroom scene features one of the two politically charged elements of the episode. Kids with guns is a sensitive topic in the U.S., but the Icelandic teacher praises one of her students’ drawings with, “Two guns! Very good.” She also makes them recite in unison for the cameras, “We love you Al Capone!” It’s amusing, though still a little cringeworthy.
The other edgier component of the episode focuses on Armisen (in a more subdued performance) as Neeloofau Shirazi, an Iranian immigrant and local shop owner. He has an uncanny resemblance to Capone and wants to enter this year’s lookalike contest, the festival’s highlight. Neeloofau is hoping to unseed Gunnar Brynjarsson, the reigning Al Capone, who’s won the competition for nine years in a row. The head of the committee has his reservations about the contestants. He’s captured on camera asking if they should allow a “foreigner” and a woman into the contest. Luckily, he’s overruled, and the three competitors vie for the title. The show pokes fun at underlying racism, sexism and stereotypes, but while doing so, shows the difference between American and Icelandic attitudes. In Árborg, the people are cordial and actually listen to opposing viewpoints, debating each other civilly. When one spectator expresses his concerns about Neeloofau possibly winning and says, “Someone not from here is our Al Capone? What does that say about us?” His friends tell him that it means they’re “open-minded and welcoming.” And you know what? Rather than sticking to his opinions just because, he changes his mind. How refreshing. We won’t spoil the eventual outcome of the competition here, but we’ll just say that it’s quintessentially Icelandic.
The episode features a number of great sight gags, including a standalone speakeasy door in the middle of the town square through which spectators can enter; a baby stroller down the stairs competition a la The Untouchables; and a new, competing festival in Vorgar that’s trying to woo the younger crowd by staging a Jimi Hendrix Festival on the exact same weekend.
Throwaway lines are rampant throughout the episode, too, as when a local public health official passes out free Capone condoms to the crowd (since the gangster died of syphilis). As he passes one out to a woman on the street, he turns to the camera and mumbles, “town slut.” Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant, attends the festival, playing a great-great granddaughter of Capone’s. As she takes in the revelry and is paraded through town with the lookalike competitors, she smiles at the camera—and us—and mouths the perfect comment: “What the f@ck?”
While the episode and its concept are entertaining, it’s missing Hader—the yin to Armisen’s yang. “A Town, A Gangster, A Festival” is a little off balance, showing how the two actors have complemented each other throughout the season. The earlier episodes had a depth to them, from mimicked camera angles and title cards to a spin on classic lines of dialogue and storylines, which are missing this week. Though weird festivals exist—including a Marilyn Monroe lookaike contest held during Latvia’s Go Blonde festival—we’d rather have the Documentary Now! team focus on poking fun at the art of filmmaking than the art of kitsch.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.