Tribeca Review: “Gnarr”

Iceland was in the throes of a financial collapse that began in 2008, one that makes America’s troubles look like a bad night at a poker table. In 2009, a man named Jon Gnarr, a man who had made his living for the previous 20 years as a comedian and punk musician, decided it would be funny to run for mayor of Reykjavík, the nation’s capital. Heading into Election Day, pollsters gave him a very real chance of winning. “Gnarr” is the story of how exactly this happened.

Directed by Gaukur Úlfarsson, the film follows Gnarr from pretty much the very beginning of his campaign, one that was launched entirely as a goof. Yes, like any decent comedian, Gnarr was out to make a serious point about electoral politics, but he was by no means making a sincere effort to win.

At one point, Gnarr explains that his time in a “psych ward” and his nearly passing the exam to get his maritime certificate are among his chief qualifications for public office. Later he makes clear his refusal to work closely with anyone who isn’t a fan of “The Wire,” which, come to think of it, isn’t a bad litmus test for civil service. And like any politician, he made promises impossible to keep, like a drug-free parliament by 2020.

Gnarr surrounds himself with fellow comedians and rockers, including one of Bjork’s former bandmates in the Sugarcubes, but one of the weaknesses of the film is that Úlfarsson fails to identify them. Between the constant swirl of people and the Icelandic tongue, it’s difficult to put names to faces and to understand who some of the players are.

But the most troubling aspect of the film is the closeness of Úlfarsson and Gnarr. Though they’d only met a year previous to the start of filming, they were colleagues and collaborators, and it’s pretty clear that they remain so on the making of this film. Documentarians rarely achieve true objectivity, but here there’s not a whiff of it.

Still, Gnarr did run for mayor, and he really did say all manner of things that in another country or time would’ve gotten him dismissed as a crack. It’s particularly fascinating watching the subtle shift in Gnarr—he starts out nakedly goofing the whole system, but as his campaign gains momentum, as he begins to realize he’s got real support, he begins to comport himself a bit more seriously. He doesn’t quite go straight, but you can see it slowly dawn on him that he’s got a real shot of winning this thing.

"Gnarr" is showing April 22, 24 & 25 at the Tribeca Film Festival

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