In The Ringmaster, Zachary Capp, an ambitious recovering gambling addict, throws his life savings into a food travelogue pilot. The subject is Larry Lang, an aging cook form Minnesota known locally for his amazing onion rings and the last vestige of the Lang family’s local restaurant legacy. Lang is now paid $500 a week to cook the rings at a tavern and he lives quietly with his sister. Capp’s pilot fails — his friends, who helped co-create The Ringmaster, feature in the documentary and bluntly say it wasn’t good — but he becomes obsessed with filming a long-form documentary about the Langs and finding a “perfect ending” for them, which, in his mind, equates to concocting big-money schemes around licensing Larry’s rings. Capp inserts himself into the Langs’ lives, and no amount of polite Midwestern “yes, but actually no” manners can get him to move on. What starts as a documentary about a unique local fried-food tradition becomes a chronicle of someone exploiting an old man in mental decline while showing little self-awareness of how heinous it all comes across in the final product.
The problem with The Ringmaster — beyond never disclosing specifics of the financial deals behind Capp licensing Larry’s rings and constantly featuring Capp’s friends talking about how nice he is despite going too far “this one time” — is that they do not disclose until the very end is that Larry is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease throughout the two-and-a-half years of filming. It’s literally conveyed only in briefly faded-in pre-credits text. But the audience knows from the footage that Larry is in some form of mental decline. As the production proceeds, his condition clearly worsens. It’s hard to believe for a single second that Larry’s behavior off-camera was lucid; it’s hard to believe that the climactic episode of disorientation while cooking rings for a potential big client was the first time Capp and company had seen of it. The entire back half of the film has little moments to assure the audience that Larry and his sister appreciate Capp’s effort to sell their recipe to big-name clients, but nothing in the footage indicates Larry has any idea what is going on. Some of Capp’s partners openly wonder whether they took it too far.
These are big dreams Capp offers them, as big as Capp’s own pursuit of a documentary to show as a result of his financial investment in the process. None of those dreams comes to pass, and in The Ringmaster, neither do Capp’s. The documentary exists, but tells a very different story than what it is clearly intending to tell. This, even after the midway point shifts focus from being about the original pilot, to being about Capp’s choice to make a documentary about making a documentary.
Capp & co. frame this as a story of a documentary filmmaker “getting too close” to their subject. There are plenty of great documentaries about crossing the boundary. In this case, the filmmakers’ end result seems to be the exploitation of a old man, choosing to withhold pertinent facts from the audience that reveal just how bad everything was behind the scenes. Capp and his friends claim that the problem was that he wanted to give the Langs a “big win,” out of the manic goodness of his heart. Which might be the case, but the footage implies a non-existent amount of empathy and care about the Langs’ health situation. It’s not an insightful work about the form; it’s a chronicle of what happens when the pursuit of a product outweighs very basic questions about the quality of life for those involved. That doesn’t ask questions about documentaries, it only reflects poorly on the makers of this documentary.
Toward the end of the story, Capp flies from Las Vegas to Minnesota on a private jet to meet the Langs and pitch them a possible licensing deal. Larry is clearly not cognizant of what is being offered but happily agrees. After their misadventure in Vegas, we see Larry being wheeled down the airline terminal as Capp waves goodbye to them. During the times between Capp’s golden ticket pitch to Larry and Larry’s final goodbye, did nobody behind the scenes wonder if this was ethical to produce? Why didn’t Capp, out of the goodness of his heart, insist upon a medical examination of Larry – or wonder if maybe this guy wasn’t up to a cross-country flight to sell onion rings?
Upon the completion of the film, was there any question of whether this looked exploitative and cruel? They stop filming after Vegas, and you can tell they stopped filming because they realized Larry was no longer up to it. Why complete the documentary this way? This is very clearly a passion project for Capp, and its release fulfills a lifelong dream of being a filmmaker, but in the end it’s a very awkward film about big personality taking advantage of a man without his faculties for selfish reasons. Not educational or enlightening, just very sad.