Saturday, June 7, 2014

Review: 'Mistaken for Strangers'

About midway through Mistaken for Strangers, a tour documentary (barely) about The National by frontman Matt Berninger's little bother Tom, the younger Berninger expresses worry that people think the only reason he's on the tour is because he's Matt's brother.

Matt regards him with a look that becomes all too familiar in the doc. It's a look of slow-burning incredulity and unwarranted patience– The only reason you are on tour is because you're my brother, he tells Tom gently.

This exchange mostly sums up Mistaken for Strangers. If you wanted a super behind the scenes look at the critically acclaimed indie rock band through the lens of a close relative, what you're really getting is a 92 minute therapy session where Tom tries to work out his issues with his older and more successful brother.

The basic framework given is that Matt was the golden boy and Tom was not. It's not a very sympathetic story, though. A few shots of their upper middle class childhood home, and their upper middle class parents who still have their art hanging on the walls doesn't exactly scream unfairness. Their mom is still convinced that Tom will find great success himself. Some people just don't pan out– Tom might be one of those people.

Still, he struggles to understand, as the tour manager puts it, that he's not in the band. He's on the crew. This struggle paints less of a portrait of a sibling relationship– after all, the tension between them is fairly tame– and more of a half-bitter, half self-indulgent pity party. Tom has access to one of the best bands out there, and he spends his time asking dumb questions like "Do you carry wallets on stage?" or seeking family counseling from the other band members who are perplexingly patient.

Moments where Tom rambles over their answers or instructs them to look one way or another, or to make a certain face feel like they would be better suited on a blooper reel, or better yet, left in the recycling bin. And yet– that's a large chunk of the film. In a smaller dosage, it could be funny. Instead, it's frustrating. In the opening scene, Matt reprimands his brother, asking if he's written any questions down, or if he has a plan. No, Matt. He did  and does not.

There are two scenes where Tom's questions lead to the kind of insight diehard National fans were probably hoping for, like perspective on putting together new albums (45 minutes of sounds that take two years to make, says drummer Scott Devendorf). The rest of the interviews? Awkwardness, bemusement, crummy sound quality.

To his credit, Tom is not shy about showing himself failing and flailing. The audience sees the tour manager chew him out multiple times, and then fire him. Matt scolds him for leaving his wet bathing suit on the table in the bus ("Where were you even swimming?!") Tom just comes off so pointless, sometimes– he gets distracted by the reflection of his own arm in the mirror of a Paris hotel room while his brother does a phone interview. He really is an annoying little brother– the kind who shines a flashlight into people's bunks and films them as they sleep.

The thing is, annoying little brothers are common place. And with these two, there's not enough conflict to support a story (which is probably a credit to their parents). Neither hates the other, nor do they have a particularly strong bond. Though, it's obvious they both want good things for the other.

Maybe, however, Matt and Tom do have something in common in their storytelling. The National's always had a knack for singing about the problems of 30-something-year-old men. If you strip out the poetry and the strings, though, it's a bunch of stories about middle class people who are recognizably normal.

Mistaken for Strangers is in select theaters, and also available to rent on Amazon.