Welcome to Wrexham review: Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney documentary brims with promise

The two Hollywood stars take us behind the scenes of one of football’s most bizarre recent takeovers

When ‘It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’ star Rob McElhenney swapped rum ham for Wrexham last year, the eyes of the footballing world - and plenty others besides - turned with intrigue to an oft-ignored market town nestled modestly between the Cambrian Mountains and the lower Dee Valley.

Accompanied by fellow Hollywood sweetheart Ryan Reynolds - bringing with him the industrial vocabulary of Deadpool, and the money of Iron Man - the pair set about on a sensational takeover of one of the oldest professional football clubs in the world, and in doing so, lit the touchpaper on a technicolour salvo of justifiable questions.

Where would their unexpected involvement in North Wales fall on the yawning spectrum of celebrity vanity projects? Was this an Elton John and Watford situation, or were Wrexham fans staring squarely down the barrel of a real-life reenactment of Roman Roy’s Hibs/Hearts debacle in series two of Succession?

Perhaps the biggest question of all, however, was quite simply: why?

In Disney+’s new documentary ‘Welcome to Wrexham’, McElhenney and Reynolds aim to answer all of those queries - and on early evidence, they do so with an earnestness that is both endearing and reassuring.

From the opening shots of dumbstruck awe that share the new owners’ first visit to the Racecourse Ground, home of the Dragons, to the frankness with which they address the obvious doubts and concerns of the club’s disenchanted fanbase, it’s clear that for all of their fame and incalculable wealth, McElhenney and Reynolds never want to eclipse Wrexham - as a team, or as a town.

In many respects, ‘Welcome to Wrexham’ lends heavily from the tropes of a documentary genre that has become increasingly prevalent in recent years.

The slow, mournful theme (in this case, a middling cover of Dylan’s ‘The Times They Are A-Changin’’) that’s probably worth a skip after Episode One? Check. The sumptuously awkward, MTV Cribs-style tours of players’ home lives, laden with foreshadowing and mind-numbing frippery about floating staircases? Check. The timely exposition of on-field fortunes told with suspicious convenience through “local news bulletins”? Check, check, and check.

Where ‘Welcome to Wrexham’ sets itself apart from other recent footballing documentaries, however, is in its emphasis on contrasts, and its perspective writ large.

With regards to the latter, this is very much an Americanised take on the beautiful game.

From the timeshare-presentation-Powerpoint graphic explaining the concept of promotion and relegation, to the brief geography lesson outlining the difference between Wales and England, to the dictionary definition of the word “nil”, this is a documentary that is as much an education as it is a portrait. (Quite how the coarse analytical stylings of cult hero vlogger Bootlegger will go down Stateside remains to be seen.)

Elsewhere, there are high-fives and heck yeahs in abundance, and if you were to take a shot every time McElhenney appears on screen wearing some form of Wrexham-affiliated baseball cap, you’d probably be inadvertantly speaking Welsh by the end of the first episode.

In part, this Americanisation feeds directly into those aforementioned contrasts.

Vital business decisions are made over acai bowls beneath Los Angeles sunsets, and discussed with searing passion by supporters waiting at burgers vans under leaden British skies, while the bleached white glean of Reynolds’ smile and the soot-stained faces of the coalminers of yesteryear who fleetingly appear in the opening credits are as visual an oxymoron as you could ever wish for.

Even tonally, there are divergences. For two men who have garnered their reputations and fortunes through irrepressible wit, it’s unsurprising to see McElhenney and Reynolds occasionally dabble with the odd moment of staged comedy - one scene involving a rogue Welsh translator raises a particularly decent chuckle.

But there are also times when ‘Welcome to Wrexham’ strikes a sincerely sombre note. To see players in the doldrums of the footballing pyramid so evidently distraught can be quite a painful watch.

The main reason that the documentary works, however, is because despite all of the disparities and incongruences, it brims with a sense of understanding.

From the earliest scenes, where McElhenney walks us around his derelict childhood home and speaks with such captivating candour about his beloved Phildelphia Eagles and the tenacious, blue collar parallels he sees in his home city and a small patch of North Wales that he’s never so much as stepped foot in, it’s blatant that he just sort of “gets” it.

Likewise, Reynolds’ assertion that he and his partner will “laugh at ourselves, but never at the situation” feels like more than just a propagandising soundbite.

Perhaps then, ‘Welcome to Wrexham’ is so watchable because it - and indeed its two main protagonists - have realised a lingering universal truth; football, whether we like it or not, is more than just a game.