By Will Ferrer
Full frontal nudity, bawdy sex jokes and unforgettable cameos reign supreme in “7 Days in Hell,” a faux docudrama starring “Brooklyn Nine Nine”’s Andy Sandberg and the “indubitably” British Kit Harrington (best known for playing Jon Snow on HBO’s “Game of Thrones”) as dueling tennis prodigies ferociously locked in a week-long duel to conquer inner demons and Wimbledon alike. Unfolding at breakneck speed, HBO’s latest one-hour special plays like a twisted “Saturday Night Live” highlight reel: quick, dirty and oh-so deliriously entertaining. Though perhaps a shade too crude for the prudish lot, “7 Days in Hell” is, nonetheless, another triumphant outing for the lucrative Sandberg, demonstrating that Apatow-esque gross-out humor and scathing satire are unlikely, yet impeccable, bedfellows.
Beginning on the seventh and final day of the “notorious” feud between America’s “bad boy of tennis” Aaron Williams (Andy Sandberg) — a hard partying imbecile “reverse Blind Side-ed” by the family of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams — and Britain’s Charles Poole (Kit Harrington) — a walking cucumber of a man, strong-armed into a career in tennis by his overbearing mother (Mary Steenburgen) — “7 Days in Hell” launches into the action without hesitation, quickly establishing the ground rules for this feverish stroll through crazy-town, before promptly back-pedaling, meticulously revealing the early years of the film’s central wunderkinds.
Pulled from the streets at a young age, Williams’ rise is meteoric and his fall, spectacular. Unable to handle the demands of prestige, the skeevy jock finds himself swiftly disgraced, unwittingly forced to live out the remainder of his days in an isolated, though luxurious, Swedish prison. Poole, on the other hand, grows steadily under his mother’s supervision, becoming Britain’s premiere tennis pro and seamlessly positioning himself to win the coveted 2007 Wimbledon championships. Following the unanticipated comeback of Williams (after a mid-orgy prison break), however, the two enemies are soon immersed in the fictitiously infamous seven-day struggle, each unwilling to cede the title to his foe. The ensuing battle is epic in scope, complete with on-court threesomes, massive lines of cocaine and the one and only David Copperfield.
From amid all this drama and intrigue emerges an exquisitely crafted satire of the cliché-ridden sports doc. Like an episode of ESPN’s “30 for 30” on crack, “7 Days in Hell” hits all of the time-honored beats of the genre — the rise to fame, the fall from grace, the triumphant return, the tragic end — while simultaneously de-constructing the gross manipulations of such films, so quick to make muscled men into martyrs. Hopelessly indulging in the art of excess — often using the same joke three or four times with only the most subtle of variations, director Peter Szymanski masterfully underscores the inherent idiocy of sports narratives, in turn converting tired tropes into gut-busting, and clever, gags. This unadulterated absurdity simply flourishes in screenwriter Murray Miller’s script.
“7 Days in Hell” often resembles little more than a crass exercise in boners and spontaneous fornication, but, with an unflagging devotion to the outlandish, Szymanski and Miller manage to derive humor from otherwise unpleasant forays into superficially tasteless humor. So preposterous is Williams’ sex tape with Charles’ ex-girlfriend Lily (Karen Gillian of “Doctor Who”), it’s astonishingly easy to forget that the whole ordeal amounts to little more than a well-developed penis joke.
For such steady execution, the film’s remarkable cast is equally deserving of commendation. Ferociously committed to Miller’s eccentric musings, Sandberg and company ensure that even the dullest of the film’s jokes never fail to amuse. With a bleach blond mane of unkempt hair, Sandberg is the obvious standout amid the assembled ensemble. Taking each groan-inducing crack one step further than expected, Sandberg makes irresistible comedic gold of lazy gags (like the testicle-tapping of a semi-nude model). Although the SNL alum is the clear comic heavyweight, however, it is Harrington who steals the show as the childish and dim-witted Poole. With a vocabulary that contains few words beyond the superficially sophisticated “indubitably,” Harrington’s Poole is left to traffic in gesture and expression, and, despite the obvious limitations of such a noticeable hindrance, Harrington manages to imbue Poole with a great deal of subtlety and a unending array of delightful mannerisms.
Regardless, “7 Days in Hell” will “indubitably” come to be known for the film’s numerous and unforgettable cameos. Though some surprise appearances owe any marked success to the strength of the script (including the woefully awkward Serena Williams), more seasoned performers like Michael Sheen (as a pedophilic British sports anchor), Lena Dunham (as Williams’ rat-tailed sponsor) and David Copperfield (as David Copperfield, close friend and confidante to Williams) excel, slowing the film’s admittedly hasty progression and providing unforeseen realism and charming nuance to this zippy tale of athletic hubris.
Perhaps “7 Days in Hell” can feel a smidge vapid at times, but in the film’s winning blend of originality and parody, the latest from premium cable powerhouse HBO proves to be one of the most uproarious programs to grace the small screen in recent months.
Contact Will Ferrer at wferrer ‘at’ stanford.edu.