Phil Rosenthal took his Raymond lens to Russia & survived, with laughs
Is kvetching about our families the universal language?
If that wasn't the question Phil Rosenthal, creator of the long-running TV comedy "Everybody Loves Raymond," set out to answer when he went to Moscow with a camera crew to record the process of remaking his classic sitcom with Russian actors, it's probably because he figured he knew the answer already.
But as we quickly learn in "Exporting Raymond," his sturgeon-out-of-water documentary, the not exactly poker-faced producer was in for a world of hurt, even if it's not the kind he'd imagined after someone suggested he might want to get kidnap-and-ransom insurance.
Rosenthal's subsequent paranoia threatens at times to go over the top - from the moment he lands in Moscow he's a bundle of nerves - but isn't out of character for a man whose 2006 memoir, "You're Lucky You're Funny: How Life Becomes a Sitcom," grew out of the expression of his deep unhappiness during a family vacation at an all-inclusive resort.
Never mind that his parents, Max and Helen Rosenthal, had already visited Russia, apparently without incident, a few years earlier - this is a man who seems to think Job No. 1 is going to be staying alive. And keeping his ears warm.
The truth turns out to be funnier. Rosenthal, whose long-running sitcom is already an international brand, with dubbed versions playing in 148 countries, expects to be welcomed with open arms by the Russians, whose introduction to the genre had come through Sony-engineered remakes of "The Nanny," "Who's the Boss?" and "Married . . . With Children," broad comedies that got even broader with a touch of borscht.
"Everybody Loves Raymond," though, was rooted in small, specific stories, some from Rosenthal's own family - if nothing else, fans might want to see "Exporting Raymond" for Max and Helen, the inspirations for the pilot's "Fruit of the Month" debacle - and the people making the Russian version clearly don't get it.
Raymond - or Kostya, as he's called there - is a wimp, they argue. The show's costume designer behaves as if she's dressing the cast of "Gossip Girl." And no one really cares what Rosenthal thinks about, well, anything.
He can't stop himself from caring, bringing the same focus to the project that he does to trying to figure out who the Russian people are, really, getting to know his enigmatic bodyguard, Eldar, and wangling an invitation to a multi-generational family dinner that turns out to be one of the film's high points.
The oddities he uncovers along the way, from the unusual background of a certain Russian TV executive to the costume designer's secret passion, might have seemed like far-fetched jokes on Showtime's fictionalized "Episodes," in which a British couple bring their hit show to the U.S., only to see it mangled. But he's careful not to exaggerate them (and indeed saves some particularly funny footage for the closing credits, because it didn't contribute to the story).
People who never saw (or never much liked) "Everybody Loves Raymond" might not get the specifics. But complaining about people who don't get your jokes? That is universal.