Believe: The Eddie Izzard Story opens with the hoariest cliché in comedy documentaries: clueless filmmakers asking random passersby and carefully selected celebrities about the film’s subject, and being answered with rapturous testimonials. Not content to quit while behind, those filmmakers then indulge in another obnoxiously ubiquitous trend in current documentaries: using cheap little bursts of homemade animation to break up the monotony of talking heads and archival clips. In this case, the filmmakers witlessly rip off Terry Gilliam’s cheeky animation for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, a primary influence for Izzard and just about every forward-thinking comedian of his generation.
The use of animation, testimonials, and wacky voices pays homage to Izzard’s ostensible outrageousness, but Izzard is about as mild, and droll as a man performing standup in women’s clothing and makeup can possibly be. Believe follows Izzard as he returns to stand-up in 2003. (He originally quit in 2000 after taking enormous criticism for reusing material in spite of trumpeting the constantly shifting nature of his act.) The film uses Izzard’s comeback tour as a springboard to trace his unlikely evolution: first a sad, dreamy little boy scarred irrevocably by his mother’s death, then a scrappy, tireless striver, then a stand-up superstar, then a respected character actor.
The documentary works best as a cinematic analogue to Steve Martin’s essential memoir Born Standing Up. Like Martin’s book, the film functions as an anatomical manual for an act that has been plotted with almost scientific rigor. As he moved methodically from sketch comedy to street performance with a partner to a curiously unicycle-heavy solo act and then to cross-dressing fame/infamy, Izzard perfected his craft and mapped out his plan for international domination. Believe makes the mistake of trying to match its subject’s zaniness when it would be better off emulating the smart, serious, ambitious man underneath the flashy exterior.
Key features: None.