“It was the most spectacular match in tennis history, but to fully understand how these two men got here, we must first know where they came from.”
Thus begins 7 Days in Hell. Every once in a while you get to just unabashedly love something you don’t expect to love. Let me qualify that by saying that I’ve been a tennis player and fan my whole life. I’m an even bigger fan of crude humor and physical comedy. I never quite expected to catch that holy trinity in one mockumentary.
7 Days in Hell is everything you expect it to be going in, but much, much better. The script from writer Murray Miller is puerile joyfulness that takes shots at everyone from the British peerage to the Swedish court system to The Blind Side to the game of tennis itself. In fact, one of the most charming things about this TV movie from HBO is that not once did the assault on tennis come from anywhere but a place of love. Some of the most subtle strokes could have only been written by someone who gets Wimbledon and world rankings and the meteoric rise of the unnamed but always alluded to Andre Agassi or the rah rah idolatry surrounding the Williams sisters.
Director Jake Szymanski was note perfect in his mockumentary stylings, capturing the various period shows on HBO or the BBC and the talking heads spots with nuanced grace. He absolutely crushed it. Szymanski is a SNL directing alum, who, based on the strength of the physical comedy alone, should be booked solid to direct comedy for the rest of his natural life. It’s tough to guess at whose feet the credit for all of the various types of comedy used in 7 Days in Hell should be placed. There’s physical gags and sight gags and callbacks and raunch and extended raunch and snark and blue and highbrow and implied and straight. There is so much comedy of such motley variety that this may be the biggest comedy TV movie smorgasbord ever made. I can’t even begin to guess how much fun it was to have been involved in the making of this.
Samberg was also spot on. I know he rubs some people the wrong way, but that thing he does on Brooklyn 99 where it’s just a ton of snarky stuff wasn’t really ever displayed here. Like everything he does in comedy, Samberg sells out, and fully commits to the role. As ‘Aaron Williams,’ the adopted brother of Venus and Serena, Samberg plays to his physical comedy strengths, and the result is magical. My guess is that even if you don’t like Samberg in general, you’ll like him in this.
More surprisingly is how Kit Harington (did you know his last name has only one R? I just found that out) absolutely kills it. Jon Snow can do comedy, people! Harington plays ‘Charles Poole,’ Samberg’s nemesis, and he’s delightfully dimwitted and idiotic. And it’s not in a “he’s just funny because everyone around him makes him feel funny” way. No, he’s truly funny. He’s talented with physical comedy and a general self-effacing sort of vibe, and he more than holds his own amidst a maelstrom of comedy dynamos.
The story revolves around one epic, 7 day match and the events leading up to it. Whether you end up on team Williams…
…or team Poole…
…you end up equally satisfied.
The rest of the cast is just spectacular. Jon Hamm’s honeysuckle narration captures the nostalgia that shows like ESPN’s 30 for 30 are known for. Fred Armisen is embedded wisely as a British tennis historian to serve as a structural comedy tentpole and he never disappoints.
Surprisingly, much of the dramatic lode fell on the shoulders of John McEnroe, who was also phenomenal.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the dicks. You’ll see more penises in this movie than fifteen French art films. It’s like every few minutes there’s more balls or penises and just when you think it’s safe to come out of the kitchen there’s erect nordic penises that go flaccid in unison like synchronized swimmers. So, if you’re still on the fence, and if you’re not into tennis, or comedy, or inspired physical comedy, or mockumentaries: you can still watch for what is undeniably a treasure trove of penises.
Loaded with HBO sports personalities like Soledad O’Brian and Jim Lampley and real life tennis greats, not to mention cameos from the likes of David Copperfield, Mary Steenburgen, Howie Mandel, and Lena Dunham, 7 Days in Hell is — if you can allow yourself to just bask in the infantile stupidity and joy and honest-to-god love of tennis — forty five minutes you’ll spend laughing your ass off. Here’s a quick smattering of a few of the people who make this the most pleasant comedy surprise of 2015.