Monday, April 23, 2012

#TFF Review: "Mansome"

Reviewed at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival

Morgan Spurlock has always been an entertainer first and a documentarian second, taking special care to make his films primarily accessible and funny, and then worrying about educating or informing. That’s his prerogative, and God knows we’ve got enough serious-minded nonfiction filmmakers carefully laying out theses statements and supporting arguments and putting everybody to sleep. But as he’s getting more ubiquitous and more prolific (this is his third feature in the past year or so, in addition to his A Day in the Life series for Hulu), it’s a quality that is getting further out of his control. Mansome, his latest effort, is his funniest film to date. It is also his most scattershot and undisciplined.

That quality is present right from the beginning; the film feels as though it’s missing a reel at the top, the one with the set-up and overview. We know, from the opening credit sequence, what the topics will be, but as Spurlock plunges in to his wide-ranging examination of male body image and machismo, we’re not sure what exactly he wants to say, or where he wants to go. By the end of the film, it’s still hard to pinpoint.

Spurlock and co-writer (and regular collaborator) Jeremy Chilnick tackle their topic in loose chapters: “The Mustache,” “The Beard,” “The Hair,” etc. The idea is to look at the fluctuating state of the male look and style, and (presumably) to extrapolate some conclusions about the sociological state of the gender, though they usually come up short on that last point. Spurlock spends some time with Jack Passion, a champion of competition facial hair (or “beard-building”). He hangs out with pro wrestler Shawn Daivari, who has a shaving, tanning, and workout regimen that rivals any supermodel. He goes on grooming errands (manicure, eyebrow threading, spa treatment, dermatologist visit) with Ricky Manchanda, a New York clothing buyer and proud “metrosexual.” And Spurlock talks about his own experience with shaving his trademark mustache as part of a “Movember” fundraiser (which leads to a weird displacement of filmmaker as interview subject—who is interviewing him, himself?).

Occasionally, a compelling notion is raised or a food-for-thought idea is hinted at in these sequences and interviews. Manchanda’s hyper-examination of his body and quest for physical perfection leads to a self-perpetuating anxiety over the body images in culture—similar to those that women have. But Spurlock never takes that second step. He’ll also show the owner of a retro barbershop owner and comedian/podcaster Adam Carolla championing this idea that the feminist movement somehow made men lose their identities, without pushing past that asinine claim to the more intriguing one underneath—that there are still men who are weak enough to see that as a zero-sum game. Spurlock doesn’t shine a light on any of those fascinating ideas, but he spends a good 20 minutes with the guy who competes in the long-beard contests.

Yet for all of those flaws—of structure, of depth, of organization—Mansome is still worth seeing, because the filmmaker was smart enough to round up some very funny people to shed some light (and, more importantly, tell some jokes) on the matter. Executive producers Jason Bateman and Will Arnett provide a framing device, going on a pampering trip to a spa and bridging the chapters with their uproarious two-act, which falls quickly into their familiar Arrested Development pattern of wry straight man and comic blowhard. Figures like Zach Galifianakis, John Waters, Paul Rudd, and Judd Apatow appear in interviews, and their snippets are well chosen and often riotously funny. And Spurlock knows when to follow the goofier story threads; he introduces us, for example, to upstart entrepreneur Brook Frank, creator of the crotch antiperspirant “Fresh Balls,” and gives us this priceless on-screen text: “Fresh Balls Focus Group.”

To be clear: as sociological documentary, as an examination of trends or gender roles, as an intellectual investigation of ideas genuinely worthy of consideration, Mansome comes up short. But as a loose collection of comic sketches and wry observational humor, well, you could do a lot worse.

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