TFF2015: Very Semi-Serious

Editor Bob Mankoff pores over Farley Katz's cartoons

          When I pick up an issue of The New Yorker, I flip through for the cartoons.  I doubt I’m the only one; after all, the magazine is famous for its sublime cartoons lampooning society and everyday life, even giving us luminaries like Addams Family creator Charles Addams.  So I was curious to see how these cartoonists and their illustrious format operate in Leah Wolchok’s documentary.

            Wolchok profiles a number of cartoonists who’ve been featured in the magazine over the years as well as cartoon editor Bob Mankoff, himself a cartoonist and a sort of amiable, less vicious version of Miranda Priestly.  She uses cute visual flourishes to bring some of the images to life, though she often just lazily starts on an image and then pans down to the caption for the obligatory laugh.  For the most part, the film is a collection of talking head interviews, and we don’t get to know many of the subjects particularly well, though there are flashes of personality and wit.  The moments with Mankoff and his family, still reeling from the tragic death of his son a year earlier, are disarming and surprisingly poignant for such a whimsical documentary.  Ultimately though, I just wasn’t that engaged by the movie, nor did I find any of its players particularly compelling—at least, not in the way they were presented.  Cartoonists and fans will probably want to see Very Semi-Serious (by the way, a movie about clever cartoons should really have a more clever title), but it doesn’t reveal all that much about the artistic process or humor in a larger context, much as it wants to.  Like a lesser cartoon in the pages of The New Yorker, Very Semi-Serious is cute, and that’s about it.

Very Semi-Serious screens Thursday, April 23 at 5:30pm at Regal Battery Park City as part of the Tribeca Film Festival.

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on April 21, 2015