The fast-paced slideshow that makes up Roger Nygard's globetrotting documentary The Nature of Existence includes stops in Beijing, Jerusalem, Vatican City and Oxford University among others, and visits with a diverse group of people from Boston pizza makers and religion text book authors to Stonehenge druids and Buddhist monks. Nygard moves from his best-known documentaries, Trekkies and Trekkies 2, to The Nature of Existence and an attempt to find answers to the key philosophical questions of life. Similar in format to the work of Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock and Nanni Moretti, Nature of Existence falls into the genre of personal documentary, a genre that goes back to Ross McElwee's landmark film Sherman's March. The problem is that Nygard is not a showman (like Moore) and the journey quickly loses its appeal. After touring film festivals including CineQuest in San Jose, Los Angeles-based distributor Walking Shadows released The Nature of Existence June 18 in New York City before expanding to Los Angeles and select cities. Poor word of mouth will keep Nature of Existence from achieving the kind of crossover success enjoyed by What the #$*! Do We (K)now!?, but target marketing towards various spiritual communities and a series of webisodes will help build enough awareness to match the modest box office of Nygard's Trekkies.
Once the opening credits roll and home movie footage gives us some background on Nygard's Minneapolis childhood, the filmmaker sets out with his digital camera to conduct interviews with people all over the world about life's great questions. His interviewees are impressive; from veteran Hollywood director Irvin Kershner (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back) and holy man Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, to string theory expert Leonard Susskind and the High Priest of the Church of Satan.
Nygard is a veteran director of TV sitcoms including Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Bernie Mac Show so I'm surprised that his film doesn't have more laughs.
Production values are average, interspersing shots of Nygard standing behind his tripod interviewing his subjects and footage of the famous landmarks he visits on his travels. Still, Nature of Existence is not a nature doc relying on stunning photography. It rises and falls on its interview material and the misses are equal to the hits.
Nygard and Tarantino edited 450 hours of footage (shot over four years) into a feature film, but the result is only intermittently successful. Nygard understood with Trekkies that he needed to choose wisely and focus on the best, most colorful subjects in his film. Yet, he seems to have forgotten that lesson for Nature of Existence. Midway into his journey, it's clear that Nygard should have chosen just one subject, maybe the portly, foul-mouthed spiritual guru named Aha.
More so than his other documentaries, Nygard remains in the spotlight from start to finish as he traveled across the globe to seek answers from various religious leaders. It's one thing to fail as a doc showman but by the film's end you feel like you have no answers to any of his questions.
Distributor: Walking Shadows
Director: Roger Nygard
Screenwriter: Joshua Zeman
Producers: Roger Nygard and Paul Tarantino
Running time: 94 min
Release Date: June 18 NY, July 2 LA