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Review: You don’t have to be a New Yorker reader to enjoy a ‘Very Semi-Serious’ look at its cartoonists

The brains behind the legendary, quirky cartoons of the New Yorker magazine come to life in the very funny documentary “Very Semi-Serious.” This film, directed by Leah Wolchok, is hilarious, but it’s unlike other comedies because the moments that get the biggest laughs are the quietest — when the cartoons are on screen. If you’re a fan of the magazine, this documentary is a delightful treat, but even if you’re unfamiliar with the unique style of visual humor, there’s lots to enjoy in this depiction of the lives and work of these cartoonists.

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As cartoons editor Bob Mankoff says, the goal is to “make the strange familiar or the familiar strange,” and that takes a very singular kind of brain. That’s captured in “Very Semi-Serious,” along with the process of rejection and dogged persistence required to succeed. You might recognize the work of the cartoonists before you know who they are; it feels, at times, like meeting a long-distance pen pal.

Favorites like Roz Chast, George Booth, Mort Gerberg and Bruce Eric Kaplan come to life, telling their life stories and showing us the way these pithy cartoons are made. The cartoons are so much more than silly jokes and scribbles — they can be a way to mourn, to process and get distance from the darker things in life. It’s a very, very funny film but also sweetly sad and poignant, echoing the mix of humor and pathos that makes a New Yorker cartoon exactly what it is.

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‘Very Semi-Serious’

MPAA Rating: None

Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes,

Playing: Laemmle Royal and Playhouse 7, Premiering on HBO on Dec. 7.


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