The art of the reel: Funny Or Die's VHS-style Donald Trump roast starring Johnny Depp

Funny Or Die Presents Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie ridicules Trump’s politics through his real estate career.

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For many, Donald Trump has gone beyond a joke. His presidential candidacy has moved from bizarre, to funny, to a terrifyingly real possibility. Comedy is harder and harder to find in an individual who, like a toupéed hydra, only grows stronger after every attack.

But people are sure as hell going to try anyway. Funny Or Die Presents Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal: The Movie, a 50-minute comedy feature starring Johnny Depp as Trump, was released yesterday to coincide with Trump’s victory in the New Hampshire Republican primary. If Trump in 2016 is more scary than truly funny, The Art of the Deal perhaps avoids this condundrum through its setting. Taking place in the mid-Eighties, it focuses on Trump the real estate tycoon, not Trump the potential Republican candidate.

The (loose) premise is this: The Art of the Deal is a movie written, directed by and staring Trump, based on his 1987 book of the same name, which was set for televised broadcast but was bumped off by a Monday Night Football match-up, and was thought “lost” in the “Cybil Shepherd blouse fire of 1989” for several decades. Now, Will Ferrell’s comedy video site Funny Or Die has “unearthed” it for our viewing pleasure. The 50 minutes that follow this introduction are true to the Eighties VHS aesthetic: washed out and static-laced, complete with a synthy retro theme tune and perfectly tacky title cards.

Set on his 40th birthday, Trump’s film follows his increasingly desperate attempts to buy the Taj Mahal casino in Atlantic City from Merv Griffin (Patton Oswalt), after falling in love with the “georgeous” and “uuuuuge” original Taj Mahal: “easily the classiest thing ever built by a Muslim”. The Atlantic City version is even classier “because it’s a casino [...] in a place way more beautiful than India.”

At the same time, a young fan rushes into Trump’s office with a stolen copy of his book, amd Trump sets about explaining his rise to success and the building of the Trump tower (“my masterpenis”), imparting wisdom in the form of “Trump cards” that whizz onto the screen branded with slogans like “FIGHT BACK!”. A phonecall montage contains some of the film’s best one-liners, as Trumps yells down the phone: “It’s called real estate! Not fake estate!”

This set-up is interspersed with sycophantic characters who enter to sing Trump’s praises, or villainous enemies who try to thwart his rise. The NYC zoning board (“They made all zoning decisions based on ancient blood rituals”), art historians attempting to preserve period architecture (“Now if you’ll excuse us, we need to go misuse tax payer dollars”), and the NYC mayor all pronounce their own incompetence on-screen: “It’s all part of my liberal agenda, Donald. [...] I’m just a stupid politician; I don’t have your intellectual prowess.”

Johnny Depp, whose 21st-century career has involved the reckless abandonment of subtlety, gives his best performance in years behind thick jowls and latex eyebags. Aided by a great script, he brings Trump’s mannerisms and verbal tics to absurd prominence, peppering sentences with a harsh “OK?”, dragging words like “claaass”, “braaass” and “yuuuuuge” just to the limits of believability. You wouldn’t fall for Depp’s impersonation in a political broadcast, but he communicates the strange essence of Trump with flair.

Trump is not your typical politician, and so this feature is not your typical political satire. The period setting means Trump’s politics are always accessed through a side door ( “We never had to admit that we refused to rent to black people: that felt great”; “I love minorities, they’re sensual”), never confronting them head-on or ridiculing any concrete statements.

Perhaps this is because the makers genuinely didn’t think his political stint would last as long as it has. “The plan was to move really fast because we thought Trump would go away, as least as a presidential candidate,” Funny Or Die’s editor-in-chief Owen Burke told The New York Times. “When he bizarrely didn’t go away, we had a little more time.”

Some of the sharpest satire comes through nods to the topical, in lines like “Mr Trump? Robert Durst called and said he put the thing in the thing? He said you’d know what he means,” and “I want my daughter to grow up to be someone I would totally have sex with!”

These moments are too few: jokes about model buildings or involuntarily saying the word “lamp” tonally situate this short more in the early Noughties period of brash comedy like Zoolander and Anchorman than a razor-sharp 2016 satire. But, overall, it does a good job of portraying Trump as a weak little man with a distorted self-image: something that is, inexplicably, becoming a hard task in contemporary political commentary.

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.