Karl Puschmann is an entertainment writer for the New Zealand Herald.

Chelsea Handler's heavyweight ego delivers hit-and-miss doco

Chelsea Handler changes tack in new Netflix documentary series that promotes slickness over substance, writes Karl Puschmann.
Chelsea Handler's need to keep Chelsea Does firmly focused on herself  prevents  the series from taking more than a superficial look at its subjects. Photo / AP
Chelsea Handler's need to keep Chelsea Does firmly focused on herself prevents the series from taking more than a superficial look at its subjects. Photo / AP

For such an outspoken character, Chelsea Handler has surprisingly little to say.

Sure, she can blah on endlessly about her specialist subject, herself, which is mildly humorous. But stretching the entertainment value of that style of vapid self-mythologising over a four-episode documentary series is a big ask.

Chelsea Does is described as a "provocative" look at the American comedian, "confronting the personal and cultural hang-ups that fascinate her". The tone of Netflix's official blurb suggests that these are not going to be a well balanced or insightful examination into weighty, sensitive topics. And they're not.

For the most part, they're equatable to watching the rushed media studies homework of a developmentally stalled teenager. There's lots of lingering shots of wine glasses and a messy confused tone that lurches awkwardly from taking the piss to attempting to dump gravitas on you.

But that's okay. Not every doco needs the sombre and fatalistic beauty of Werner Herzog and his miserable monotone to be worth a damn. Sometimes being entertaining is enough. Just ask hamburger enthusiast Morgan Spurlock. And Handler can certainly be entertaining as she tackles such lofty topics as marriage, technology, racism and drugs.

These 70-80-minute docos want to sit alongside those by the brilliant Louis Theroux. But Handler isn't in possession of his devastating intellect or ability to shut the hell up and let his worst subjects hoist themselves upon their own misguided petards.

Comparisons can also be made to Karl Pilkington's The Moaning of Life, though Handler has none of Pilkington's reluctant curiosity or inclination towards understanding.

Instead she jumps into documentary-making armed with a loud mouth, a tremendous fearlessness and a brutal and effective raised eyebrow game.

So it's a bugger that she's unable to step away from herself. Despite bringing in heavyweight doco maker Eddie Schmidt (This Film is Not Yet Rated) to direct, Chelsea Does takes only the most superficial and breezy look at her topics.

For example, in "Marriage" she discovers her dad never thought she was wife material, talks to a flamboyant wedding planner and hoofs to Vegas to spend a day at a shotgun wedding chapel, all the while complaining that she hates how cheesy and frivolous weddings are before seeking out the most cheesy and frivolous people to interview.

By the end Handler hasn't learned anything, had her views challenged or shown us anything new. She thinks weddings are lame and nothing changes her mind. Which is fair enough. But it makes the entire premise pointless.

Contrast that with Pilkington's episode on marriage. He too rocks up to Vegas for the lols. But he also explores marriage in other cultures and genuinely tries to make sense of the concept to gain an understanding of why people do it.

This is something Chelsea Does doesn't do. In any episode.

Her struggle with technology is a bore, but "Drugs" is funny and actually shows us something new as she encounters four Los Angeles burnouts - sorry, shamen - and jaunts off to the sweaty stank of Peru to gulp down hallucinogens.

For balance, I suppose, Handler also grabs coffee with an ex-junkie. But this episode mainly celebrates how much fun drugs can be and works as an advertisement for the "life altering, spiritual journey" that awaits you at the bottom of a mug of entheogenic tea in deep, dark Peru.

But only after you get past the chronic vomiting and explosive diarrhoea that ayahuasca consumption brings on before getting to all that spiritual stuff.

Marriage, tech and, here anyway, drugs are all frothy, fizzy topics. Racism though ... that's heavy, man. And Handler handles it well. Perhaps it's because she's on the defensive from the get-go, being both white and a huge fan of telling racist jokes.

A panel of experts explain why her gags hurt minorities and how they reinforce negative associations. She visits an old slave-run plantation and shares a juice with a racist. Police brutality and racially motivated murders are examined and, like the best documentaries, the result is highly affecting.

But it's brief. Perhaps sensing that the topic was getting bigger than the show's star, Handler circles it back to being about Handler, ticking the topic off with a rigorous and unnecessary defence of her race-based gags.

Prizing slickness over substance Chelsea Does is an easy watch and a good excuse to hang with Handler as she goofs around.

It's a shame. Because with a clearer sense of purpose - and a good editor - Chelsea Does could have been really great.

- NZ Herald

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Karl Puschmann is an entertainment writer for the New Zealand Herald.

A pop culture junkie, Karl has spent his career writing about the important things in life; music, film, television, comics and video games. He was editor of a popular music rag for five years and has since written regularly for every local culture/arts/lifestyle magazine worth a damn. His recent expansion into travel writing has flung him far, far from the comfort of his couch and into that bewildering place known as the ‘outdoors’. He is also currently endeavouring to make sense of the world by reviewing it over at critikarlreviewstheworld.com

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