Underlying the bouncy storyline of the confectionary documentary Exporting Raymond is the fundamental question of how different cultures and ways of being find routes to understanding. The film follows the intriguing path of Russian television adapting the popular sitcom Everybody Loves Raymond for its audience, and the frustrations and various hoops encountered along the way.
A less intentional twist on the theme of getting lost in cultural translation is the fact that the TV-phobic among us may find difficulty relating to the overall glib tone of the enterprise. Granted, the film is strictly an insider’s view, without apology. It all begins with Everybody Love Raymond writer Phil Rosenthal getting “the call” to help create a pilot for Russia, where the adapted sitcom is a growing entertainment sector. Rosenthal did what any self-respecting contemporary show-biz person in the age of reality television and cheap, high-quality cameras would do: He decided to capture the adventure on film.
It would have been interesting, in fact, to see this tale told from a cooler-headed, more objective, or cinema-verité perspective. Instead, Rosenthal is, à la Michael Moore, the documentary’s star, tour guide, writer, and editing-room trouper, wading through the footage in search of an engaging story. And he does tell a good story, peppered with his own rim-shot-seeking jokes along the way. His travels take him through encounters with glum TV executives, the head of the esteemed Moscow Art Theatre (who cheerily dismisses the television medium, except for the news), a cross-cultural embracing family dinner, and a touching friendship with his driver/bodyguard, a military man who loves seashells.
In the end, Exporting Raymond, while fascinating in many ways, short-sells its potential by coating itself with that cozy feel-good aerosol we recognize as the byproduct of American sitcom consciousness. Personally, I’ve only seen smatterings of Everybody Loves Raymond on airplanes, while in captive-audience mode, and that context may ultimately be the best condition under which to bask in the easy-going glow of this film.