The best-laid plans…as they say. We all have those moments of brilliance in life. An idea sparks and we have to act on it. Your instincts tell you, “how can this possibly go wrong?” Famous last words, right?
Molly Dworsky and Dave Newberg’s The Ringmaster is one of the most meta documentaries within a documentary that I’ve ever seen. The original documentary was supposed to be a pilot television show called American Food Legends, created by Zachary Capp, who had successfully turned his life around after rehab and received a substantial inheritance to fund the show.
Zach’s first subject is Larry Lang, the proprietor of Michael’s Steakhouse in Minnesota, who made the best onion rings in America (as verified by the Tom Sietsema of the Washington Post) and was a source of nostalgia for Zach growing up. The idea was simple and appeared to be a good one because popular shows like this already existed (e.g., Drive-Ins, Diners, and Dives on the Food Network).
“…Larry Lang of Michael’s Steakhouse…who made the best onion rings in America…”
The main problem with Capp’s documentary was the main subject, Larry Lang. He was a simple mid-western man, living a simple mid-western life. In other words, he was uninteresting, answered questions with only one word or long pauses to reflect with ultimately no answer. It was clear that Larry was a loyal member of the community, loved his customers, and was an all-around nice man. But Larry was shy and awkward on camera…not star material.
Zach was desperate to salvage the doc. And to inject a little life into Larry’s story, he began to meddle in a reluctant Larry’s life. Zach volunteers him to take part in a town celebration, sell his rings at the local auto racetrack, and ultimately launch as the official onion rings of the soon-to-be Las Vegas Raiders. What could go wrong?
What I love in the documentary happens at roughly the half-way point, when Zach’s film crew turns the tables on him and decides to make that documentary about Zach. There is where directors Molly Dworsky and Dave Newberg step in. Everyone involved, including Zach, embraces the documentary about a documentary. The Ringmaster is the result of this serious course correction.
“…one of the most meta documentaries within a documentary that I’ve ever seen.”
Like watching fish in a fish tank, you could spend hours just studying Zach and Larry in this dance of futility. The two are also surrounded by an equally fascinating cast of characters including Zach’s mother and Larry’s sister, who is sort of his caretaker. It’s a wonder that a film with this much love and support behind it, could ever fail. Now the doc becomes a well-intentioned story of Zach’s “best-laid plans” and let’s not forget the original subject, Larry. His journey to Vegas is best left for the film, but I’ll describe it as “sweet and tragic.”
What I love about The Ringmaster is its honesty and fascinating character study of Zachary Capp and Larry Lang. We discover that Capp is a genuinely sincere person and wanted the best for Lang. Fortunately, he’s nowhere as crazy as Albert Brooks’ Real Life. Zach created amazing opportunities for Larry’s onion rings getting them in front of bands like KISS and the ultimate NFL deal. Most people would appreciate the opportunity, but Larry isn’t most people.
To me there’s one enormous flaw in The Ringmaster. So just how great are these onion rings? We see countless pictures of them and listen to numerous testimony to its greatness. Why are they so damn good? Are they thick or skinny rings? What’s in the batter? What sets them apart from the millions of other rings in the nation? Tell me! I want to know!!! I’m so hungry!