Riding high on the success of their 2010 album, High Violet, Brooklyn-based indie-rockers the National embarked on an extensive world tour across North America, Europe and Australia. But don’t expect a typical behind-the-scenes chronicle from Tom Berninger’s calculatedly ramshackle, though often poignant, doc debut. For starters, Berninger is the brother of lead vocalist Matt Berninger, who hires his younger sibling as a roadie for the group. In between his equipment-hauling and grub-procuring backstage responsibilities—at which he proves himself ridiculously incompetent—Tom videotapes the band’s comings and goings and conducts a few hilariously off-point interviews that inevitably circle away from his subjects and back to him.
Tom’s blundering ineptitude is part of the charm, of course, and his numerous what-kind-of-movie-am-I-making? laments are the very thing that eventually give his project focus. (Not for nothing is there a cameo from Werner Herzog, no stranger to shaking up the nonfiction format.) What holds Mistaken for Strangers back from greatness—or even goodness—is the frequent impression that Tom is playing up his foibles and failures for effect. He’s so much the depressive ne’er-do-well, especially in the latter half when he moves in with Matt and his wife, Carin, that he seems like a walking contrivance created to give the National a more human face (popular musicians have family problems too!) while still promoting the group’s brand. The brotherly-love epiphany to which the film builds does effectively pluck the heartstrings, but there’s a lingering sense that we’re being had.
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