A merciless satire of sports documentaries is, if anything, overdue. They’ve been around long enough, and though they were initially mostly made by sports fans for sports fans (the occasional Hoop Dreams notwithstanding), the cultural ubiquity of the subgenre has increased exponentially over the past few years, thanks to ESPN’s masterful 30 for 30 series and the continuing good work of HBO’s sports doc division, both of which seemed to realize they could hook documentary fans who didn’t give a damn about sports (guilty). So the HBO Sports logo of its opening lends some legitimacy to 7 Days in Hell, a mockumentary account of a fictional seven-day tennis match at Wimbledon 2001.
The players are Aaron Williams (Andy Samberg), who’s such a raucous “bad boy” — flipping the bird on court, celebrating points by playing air guitar on his racket—that even John McEnroe calls him an asshole. Opposite Williams is Charles Poole (Kit Harrington) a child tennis prodigy whose mother (Mary Steenburgen, great) pushed him so exclusively to excel in the sport that he has no other knowledge; a dim bulb at best, the movie gets in a good running joke about how he thinks saying “indubitably” a lot makes him sound smart.
7 Days in Hell runs a lean 43 minutes, most of them very funny. Director Jake Symanski and writer Murray Miller have the sports-doc conventions down cold, from the archival footage to the vintage interviews to the talking heads, which include both real sports figures like McEnroe, Serena Williams (Aaron is her adopted brother), Chris Evert, and Jim Lampley, as well as comic actors like Lena Dunham and Samberg’s SNL pals Will Forte and Fred Armisen as fictional experts and witnesses.
The presence of the latter actors gives it, at times, the feel of a long SNL digital short, though they proudly use their pay-cable playdate to get a good deal raunchier than NBC would allow. Some of that stuff works — like the hilariously pornographic Taiwanese animation segment — while other moments fall into the realm of SNL’s lazy “guys kissing is hilarious” trope.
The funniest sections, for my money, are the peculiar and often only tangentially related sidebars. Michael Sheen has an uproarious cameo as a sweaty, creepy BBC chat show host that’s worthy of a film of its own, and June Squibb’s cameo as Queen Elizabeth is priceless. But the best section comes when Williams is on trial for fraud in Sweden, and the courtroom sketches are so cartoony, they have cute, Disney-style animals peppered throughout. What looks at first like an Airplane-style throwaway sight gag degenerates into a hilarious detour about the life and influence of innovative Swedish courtroom sketch artist Jan Eriksson, a bit that goes on exactly long enough to exquisitely satirize the “this is too interesting to leave out” inclinations of some documentarians. And the closing passages are exactly right, from the earnest tributes (“Someone should say that at my funeral”) to that old standby, the Sadly Prescient Archival Interview (“If I die,” Williams announces, “that should be the last shot of my doc!”).
But if the parodies of nonfiction filmmaking land, the film could use a bit more bite in its approach to sports. Perhaps due to the participating parties, it never quite feels like they’re going at that subject with the bite they could (and that it deserves); even a broad farce like Talladega Nights scored some points on commercialization, a juicy target that only gets a passing shot here, albeit a funny one, with Lena Dunham as the Jordache executive who puts Williams in a white denim outfit for his comeback. The few jabs they take at tennis — like sportscaster Jim Lampley’s pronouncement that “he was a tennis player. Who cares?” — are welcome, and remind us that something like This Is Spinal Tap (the gold standard for this kind of thing) wasn’t afraid of stepping on some toes. 7 Days in Hell is a funny diversion, with some great moments. But like so many of the SNL sketches it resembles, it’s too chummy with its targets to punch as hard as it should.
7 Days in Hell is available now on HBO GO and HBO NOW. It premieres on HBO Saturday night.