Bill Hader walks up to the camera wearing a brown skirt around his waist and sweatpants on his head.
"It's very practical," he says, voice lilting just above his natural register as he touches his DIY headdress gingerly. "It's a built-in scarf."
This barely exaggerated Grey Gardens parody — part of IFC's new documentary spoof series Documentary Now! — instantly proves a couple of things. One: Writer Seth Meyers knows — and loves — his source material. And two: Hot damn, can Bill Hader act.
Documentary Now finds success in its finer details
Documentary Now is deliberately esoteric, catering to an audience that knows the particular formats it targets.
Two of the first three episodes take on two distinctive and wildly different documentary formats: the bombastic bravado of Vice and Grey Gardens' perversely compelling character study of Edith Bouvier Beale ("Little Edie") and her mother ("Big Edie"), East Hampton's most infamous residents. The Vice sendup (a self-important gonzo journalism series called "Dronez") is the weaker of the two, betraying the fact that this Lorne Michaels production does at times feel like a Saturday Night Live sketch that's been encouraged to run a little long. ("Dronez" was delayed a week due to similarities with the recent Virginia shootings.)
But even in its weaker segments, Documentary Now! sets itself apart with its incredible attention to detail. Everything from the credits to the shooting style to the spot-on (and slightly mocking) costume choices reveals that this production seriously did its homework.
All that said: Documentary Now's greatest and most riveting asset is still Hader.
Bill Hader's post-SNL career leans on emotional nuance
Hader's highest-profile role outside of SNL was in this summer's Trainwreck, where he played it largely straight as Amy Schumer's love interest. While Hader got to have some fun with LeBron James, his role depended on his ability to draw tenderness out of Schumer's more caustic character, which he did with ease.
For those used to his time in wigs on Saturday Night Live, seeing Hader as a romantic comedy lead was jarring in the best kind of way. Those who were surprised will have to get used to it, though, since Hader's résumé is steadily racking up characters that require a tenderhearted empathy.
In just the last few years, he's played Kristen Wiig's depressed brother in The Skeleton Twins, a sleepwalking lifeguard in Aubrey Plaza's type-A sex comedy The To Do List, and the frantic voice of Fear in Pixar's deeply moving Inside Out. He's currently set to play the biggest empath of them all as the Giant in Steven Spielberg's adaptation of The BFG. The Giant differentiates himself from his rudimentary brothers by escaping into the land of dreams, where people's rawest and most deeply buried feelings go to play. With his uncanny ability to balance cartoonish expressions with a beating heart, Hader is the perfect candidate to bring Roald Dahl's most purely emotional creation to life.
More unexpected is the fact that he turns out to be the perfect actor for Little Edie, an aging woman with no sense of reality and a visibly crumpling heart.
Hader's Little Edie isn't funny because he's in drag
In Grey Gardens, Little Edie was an unstable woman, but also a very proud one. She relished the idea of being the grand arbiter of culture no one could understand, even as she wrapped her head in more and more fabric and clumsily tried to take care of her mother (played here by an unblinking Fred Armisen). Documentary Now's bizarro version of Grey Gardens eventually takes a sinister turn — we won't spoil it, but think Too Many Cooks — so Hader and Armisen's portrayals necessarily get bigger and bigger to match.
Before that third act, though, Hader's take on Little Edie is surprisingly compassionate. The joke isn't just that he's wearing sweatpants on his head and a skirt; that would be too easy. So many male comedians have shrugged on a dress and done the comedic equivalent of jazz hands, hoping that the mere sight of a man in drag is enough to make people laugh. From Milton Berle as Lucille Ball's "Aunt Mildred" all the way up to ABC's disastrous sitcom Work It, scripts can pretend that the gender panic of "what's that dude doing in a dress?!" is an entire joke. The challenge is pushing past the so-called shock value of drag into something more interesting — like actual character.
Hader doesn't depend on his outlandish wardrobe in "Sandy Passage." He makes a concerted effort to create an actual character, which in turn sells the satire. In between moments of slapstick, Hader's Little Vivvy is a fully realized person. She dances poorly, then glances at the camera to make sure those who are filming got all of it. She lashes out at her mother in bursts of fury, which instantly give way to nostalgic melancholy. Her eyes widen and narrow, alternately full of joy and rage.
Then she falls through a flight of stairs. Just like that, Hader takes a hairpin turn back into straight comedy.
Documentary Now! airs Thursdays at 10 pm Eastern on IFC. Catch up on previous episodes at the IFC website.
Updated: Changed to reflect IFC's decision to delay the Vice parody by a week.