Gaukur Úlfarsson’s documentary “Gnarr” follows the efforts of Jón Gnarr, an Icelandic comedian/TV show actor/perpetual goofball, to become Mayor of Reykjavik. A brief prologue provides a glimpse, as did “Inside Job,” into the 2008 financial crisis in Iceland, in which the country’s three largest banks collapsed and were subsequently nationalized, leading to a still ongoing recession. The government took its fair share of the blame, and Iceland, it seems, is holding out for a hero.
In 2009, Gnarr launched his own platform, the Best Party, initially as a joke. In promotional webcasts, in TV ads, even at public forums, he called for a variety of reforms that wouldn’t normally be prioritized by “serious” politicians. Among them: instead of shooting stray polar bears, put them in the zoo; build a Disneyworld at the airport; and don’t allow anyone into politics that hasn’t seen “The Wire” in its entirety. Amazingly he was elected for mayor in May 2010.
Gnarr, with his ruddy pig nose, spiky blonde hair and high-pitched seal laugh, represents a taller, more clean cut Lars Ulrich. Like Ulrich, he is endlessly self-promoting, endlessly cracking up at his own jokes—even when his street team isn’t—and endlessly charming the young and hip citizens of his fan base. His “Best Party” isn’t so much meant as a satiric, barbed attack on the powers-that-be; it’s a call for joy and fun to return to doomed Reykjavik. Admitting up front his inexperience (“I should be the Mayor because I have a truck license and I worked in a psych ward,” he chuckles during the film’s intro), he behaves at all times—despite being a forty-something family man—like the class clown falling asleep in the back of the classroom.
Intermittently funny, sometimes frustratingly myopic and finally grating, “Gnarr” is a little bit too infatuated with its subject. Gnarr is well-meaning and smart—who wouldn’t want a fun-loving comedian as their Mayor over a group of penny-pinching fossils? Some of his off-the-cuff remarks are hilarious, delivered with expert timing (“Get rid of that airport!” he shouts, when a flight taking off disrupts his interview). And he’s a wonderfully inventive campaigner in terms of advertising—the Best Party’s theme song is set to Tina Turner’s “Simply the Best,” for instance.
But his political ideas, amusing as they are, come across as too quirky, too fey, to really upset a long-standing establishment. The most trenchant critique of his opponents that Gnarr can manage is “They’re so boring!” Aside from mishandling the banking crisis, we never really get a sense of why they are so out of touch, and why the city would really be in better hands with this self-satisfied jokester.
The most fascinating part of “Gnarr” isn’t Gnarr himself, but the staggering lack of controversy and disdain that surrounds his campaign. Sure, a few older politicians and journalists mildly deride his being unfit for Mayor, but seconds later they are completely worked over by him, whether or not his jokes or ideas are all that clever. And of course, the teenagers and young adults wholeheartedly support a candidate who once played backup for Bjork (in the band the Sugarcubes). Whether or not American audiences find Gnarr ingratiating, the film makes you long for a candidate that fun-loving and happy to run for office—and for the public to accept it with that much ease.