A lot of high-concept comedies are often criticized for much the same reason films based on Saturday Night Live characters are taken to task: These movies too regularly feel like an SNL sketch stretched out to the 90-minute mark. Whether it’s Get Hard or Coneheads, the list of films that fail to expand on their initial premise—or their earlier lives as a much shorter gag—is lengthy. Thankfully, 7 Days In Hell doesn’t try to run out the clock. At a fleet 42 minutes, the telefilm is less an exhaustive volley than a well-played game point, goofing along on its premise and then calling it a day in less time than the average episode of The Walking Dead. Which is a fitting reference for a comedy about tennis players stuck in the match that wouldn’t end.
Scripted by Murray Miller (a writer on American Dad! and Girls, among others), this mockumentary is less Christopher Guest-style satire—where the humor comes from the absurdity of the world it’s sending up—and more Andy Samberg silly-fest, zipping along on wacky energy and non sequitur humor. When a comedy this brief stops dead in its narrative to spend a couple minutes discussing the “groundbreaking” work of “Swedish courtroom sketch artist Jan Erik Ekland,” you know you’re not exactly dealing with a deep attention span.
7 Days In Hell purports to cover a legendary week-long tennis match between two greats of the sport. In typical 30 For 30 style, complete with somber voice-over narration (from a deadpan Jon Hamm), the mock doc tells the story of Aaron Williams (Samberg) and Charles Poole (Game Of Thrones’ Kit Harington), two world-class players who eventually meet head-on in what turns out to be the world’s longest game of tennis. Williams, the adopted sibling of Serena and Venus Williams, is the disgraced bad boy who returns to the court for one last shot at glory. Poole is the simpleminded idiot who has only ever known tennis, a naïf trying to win Wimbledon for the glory of England (and to ensure his mother doesn’t make good on her threat to stop loving him if he loses). A parade of absurd talking heads provides color commentary on the unfolding lunacy, and at one point, a threesome takes place on court in the middle of Wimbledon. It shouldn’t be a surprise to learn there’s not much actual tennis going on in this little narrative.
Samberg is the star of the show, making Williams a walking id of vanity and sexual appetites. (In a nice bit, it’s unclear even to Williams whether he wants to have sex with Poole or beat him at tennis, though probably both.) His outsized comic creation is a bundle of manic energy, and not just because his character keeps snorting cocaine, even on the court. Samberg’s loose-limbed and good-natured silliness keeps Williams’ boorish asshole from feeling exhausting or too mean—the Brooklyn Nine-Nine star is such a silly and likable presence, it keeps the histrionics appealing.
Harington’s Poole gets short shrift in comparison, though to be fair, the role doesn’t require much of the actor beyond leaning into his blank-faced good looks. Playing Poole as a dimwit momma’s boy, Harington underplays as much as possible, a smart counterweight to Samberg’s raging Williams. A nice recurring bit involves Poole being interviewed by a lecherous TV host, mostly funny because it’s Michael Sheen doing an obvious—and deliciously mean-spirited—riff on William F. Buckley. Beyond that, Poole doesn’t get much mileage, outside of being on the receiving end of threats from the Queen Of England, and repeating “indubitably” in response to just about any question, regardless of its applicability.
The talking heads are a cavalcade of names, both comic and otherwise, who are all clearly enjoying riffing on the ridiculousness of it all. Serena Williams appears as herself, full of sisterly reflection on her deranged adopted brother. Other guest appearances include tennis icons Chris Evert and John McEnroe, sportscaster Jim Lampley, and an enthusiastic David Copperfield, who also ends up playing a key role in the story. Interspersed with the real folks are people like Will Forte and Fred Armisen, playing faux tennis historians with pompous reserve. These commentators lean heavily on goofball riffs as well, to the point that it’s not even a surprise when Lena Dunham appears, sporting a wig identical to Samberg’s and hamming it up for a minute or two. The broad caricatures have all the subtlety of an overhead smash down the middle, but the consistency in tone makes it work.
And in some of the little details, the mini-film shines. Maintaining the look and feel of broadcast tennis matches was a given, but director Jake Szymanski knows when to goose the quiet moments that normally occur in such gameplay with well-timed comic asides. The jokes land solidly more often than they hit the net, and even the crasser humor is leavened by the mock serious tone of it all. By the time the title match actually begins, the mockumentary has established such a gonzo vibe, it wouldn’t be shocking if Samberg’s character interrupted the proceedings to have over-the-top sex. Which he does. Repeatedly. While high-fiving his partner. Which is why this inconsequential trifle of a TV movie ends up being a winning set. It serves up just the right combination of silly and sly, and—rare and wonderful in a comedy—it knows when to get off the court.