It’s only the Wednesday after the New Hampshire primary, and the 2016 presidential election is already the most analyzed, most scrutinized, most discussed political campaign in United States history. It’s not just that there are more platforms for running commentary than ever before—it’s that there are more platforms for a wider segment of the electorate to comment on the campaign in the moment. Combined with the outsized characters vying for the Oval Office, the proliferation of soap boxes, grandstands, and megaphones also means this election is already the most lampooned in history, too.
Think back to 2008, when the leading voices of electoral satire were The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, and people wondered if vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin might show up at 30 Rockefeller Center to square off with Tina Fey on Saturday Night Live. Today, The Daily Show has sprouted three topical late-night offshoots (four if you count Stephen Colbert’s Late Show), an SNL cameo is practically a prerequisite of candidacy, James Adomian and Anthony Atamanuik are on a nationwide tour with their stage show Trump Vs. Bernie: The Debate, and anybody with a wi-fi connection and 10 minutes can achieve viral fame with a “Bernie Or Hilary?” flier. It would seem that every angle on the candidates has been covered—if those angles aren’t being actively neutralized by the candidates themselves, as Donald Trump did when he hosted Saturday Night Live last November.
Don’t give up the search for fresh angles just yet, because there’s still Donald Trump’s The Art Of The Deal: The Movie. The Funny Or Die production succeeds where SNL couldn’t because it stars a different kind of Trump. Using the candidate’s genuine megalomania as its starting point, the movie reimagines Trump in the vein of pompous fictional auteurs like Eric Jonrosh and Garth Marenghi: He’s writer, director, producer, star, cinematographer, co-producer, costume designer, and theme song writer of the film-within-the-film, a dopey made-for-TV biopic unseen for years due to a particularly boring primetime NFL matchup. Rather than offering a singular voice, the funny thing about Jonrosh, Marenghi, and Art Of The Deal’s Trump is that their fictional works speak in a single voice—that of their creator. Other figures from Donald Trump’s life wander in and out of The Art Of The Deal, but they’re mostly puppets for the creator’s perverted outlook—especially when they’re actual puppets, like Alf, portrayed here as the best man at The Donald’s marriage to Ivana Zelníčková (Michaela Watkins).
Though only nominally based on Trump: The Art Of The Deal, the script by Joe Randazzo still draws on that bestseller’s part-memoir, part-advice structure, framed as a multi-part lecture to a multiethnic series of kids in backward baseball caps. (Full disclosure: Randazzo is a former editor of The A.V. Club’s sister publication, The Onion.) It’s a gag-a-minute affair with a strong spine: A fanatic quest for immortality that involves buying the Taj Mahal Casino out from under Merv Griffin (Patton Oswalt). The property is positioned as Trump’s Rosebud (not that he understands that reference) and he seeks its acquisition across what’s essentially a feature-length comedy sketch directed by Drunk History’s Jeremy Konner, with gauzy faux-VHS visuals, title cards modeled on the book’s thuddingly severe typography, and squealing guitars accompanying every new “Trump Card Element Of The Deal.” The concept works pretty well at trailer length, with a provocative voiceover and a cutdown of the film’s greatest hits. But the ingenious ploy of that trailer is the curiosity it creates with its pileup of famous faces and dunderheaded one liners. It’s an itch that’s scratched by the full Art Of The Deal.
As satire, this version of the tycoon succeeds in drawing a line between the trash-talking Lonesome Rhodes of 2016 and the redheaded Gordon Gekko of 1986. Set before The Apprentice or before the Saturday Night Live hosting gigs, on Trump’s 40th birthday, The Art Of The Deal catalogs the man’s sins—discriminatory housing practices, bogus lawsuits, the destruction of architectural artifacts—in dramatizations that are only slightly more ridiculous than his modern-day TV theatrics. Period details are occasionally tossed aside for jokes about sloganeering hats or truly heroic Vietnam War veterans, but the humorous thrust is in the contradictions, Trump’s facile boardroom pointers for everyday people bumping up against the bullying, manipulative, prejudicial tactics that made him a Master of the Universe. One running gag involves Trump describing rivals like Barron Hilton (Stephen Merchant) as charmed beneficiaries of wealthy fathers, never once stopping to acknowledge the leg up he got from Frederick Trumps Sr. and Jr. This is lampooning by way of illustration.
The Art Of The Deal manages the traditional Funny Or Die trick of drawing top flight talent to a very silly project, but the real coup is Depp as Trump. The Garbage Pail Kids hair and makeup do a lot of heavy lifting, but the actor’s vocal inflections and mannerisms create an incredible facsimile of Trump—albeit one that’s rooted in the twitchy kookiness of Captain Jack Sparrow or Raoul Duke. For once in his post-Pirates Of The Caribbean career, an entire production can actually keep up with Depp’s whims and tap into his wavelength, striking a tone that’s as big and brassy as the character he’s playing. It helps that he’s unrecognizable beneath the makeup; it also helps that there’s no Mortdecai-like ambiguity about whether or not the character is supposed to be a lovable rake or a despicable scoundrel. The ugliness of the performance holds Trump up for ridicule, and Depp commits to that ugliness better than anyone short of the genuine article. Like the real Trump, he delivers a bizarrely magnetic performance, and that magnetism is enough to hold the whole enterprise together, even as the intentional incompetence of the film-within-the-film threatens to sink the final act.
Donald Trump’s The Art Of The Deal: The Movie isn’t something with a long shelf life, as attested by its mode of distribution or its sudden appearance. You can argue that releasing the movie the morning after Trump’s first primary victory was a strategic deployment, you can argue that it’s just lucky timing—just make sure you stop arguing before Trump’s legal team mobilizes and attempts to get The Art Of The Deal taken down. The topicality that makes the movie’s satire so potent also renders it an instant time capsule—for all the cachet The Art Of The Deal will have come December, it might as well have been released on Snapchat. In the moment, however, it’s thrilling to see so many talented people team up to so thoroughly burst Trump’s bubble in new and exciting ways. Considering the off-the-cuff nature of its subject, who’s willingly ignorant of history and maddeningly vague about his plans for the future, isn’t “in the moment” all that should matter about The Art Of The Deal?