Middling ‘Mansome’ Suffers From Skin-Deep Insight
CHICAGO – Morgan Spurlock is an awfully likable guy. I’ll never forget the day when he held a special screening of “Super Size Me” for an auditorium full of college kids. After participating in an extended Q & A, Spurlock spoke with every single student that wanted to shake his hand and pose for a picture. When the building finally had to close up for the night, the Spurlock love fest spilled out onto the sidewalk.
The amiable, often meandering nature of his work directly reflects the agreeable personality of the filmmaker himself. While confrontational documentarians like Michael Moore embrace their fearsome reputations like a badge of honor, Spurlock is so approachable that you’d hardly expect him to have anything up his sleeve. Yet as entertaining as his films can be, Spurlock could certainly benefit from borrowing some of Moore’s shrewdness.
Though “Super Size Me” left no trace of doubt that McDonald’s is profoundly unhealthy, its message was weakened by the contrivance of Spurlock’s self-destructive experiment. Eating too much of the same food will always lead to negative physical repercussions, regardless of whether it’s made at McDonald’s or Jimmy John’s. When it comes to serious subjects, such as the search for Osama bin Laden, Spurlock falters terribly. He’s more comfortable when in playful mode, and his vignettes about lovable eccentrics can be both endearing and poignant. 2011’s “Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope” was easily the most satisfying film of Spurlock’s career, but his latest effort, “Mansome,” feels like a step backward. It addresses the topic of modern perceptions regarding masculinity by merely scratching the surface of its subjects’ bearded skin. Some of the biggest names in comedy—Judd Apatow, Paul Rudd, Zach Galifianakis, etc.—are brought on merely to deliver quippy asides in between episodic segments that are benignly humorous at best, tedious at worst. There’s no reason to see the film in a theater since its production values are anything but cinematic. As a mildly diverting trifle, the film works perfectly well, but Spurlock’s perspective on the material just appears to be one of cheerful bemusement. We get no sense of what Spurlock actually thinks about the issues he raises. His message in “Mansome” seems to be, “Men must obsessively groom themselves in order to have a better chance at procreating—or not.”
Morgan Spurlock shaves off his trademark mustache in his new documentary, Mansome.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Paladin
Spurlock is certainly not mean-spirited enough to openly mock one of his subjects, though he comes close with his depiction of Jack Passion, a competitive beardsman whose exceptionally long red facial hair has won international championships. In all fairness, much of what Passion says sounds relatively clueless, yet it would’ve been interesting to see his story become something more than a quirky curiosity. An even less successful episode centers on a focus group’s sampling of a product called “Fresh Balls.” Spurlock’s camera awkwardly regards the men as they disappear to the restroom to apply the product to their nether regions. This is the sort of scene that might sound funny in a trailer but proves to be pointless in the final cut. The problem here is that Spurlock spends so much time observing grooming habits that he neglects to explore the underlying and more provocative side of the subject matter. How has a man’s role changed in society? What does it really mean to be a man? How does this intensified fixation on appearance connect with our society’s expectations about one’s own character? Are these modifications only skin-deep, or has the soul of America truly changed? All are good questions, none of which are sufficiently answered or even addressed here, aside from lots of rambling theorizing.
The best thing that can be said about “Mansome” is that it gave executive producers Jason Bateman and Will Arnett an excuse to resurrect their beloved Bluth personas prior to the next season of their masterful sitcom, “Arrested Development” (slated to debut exclusively on Netflix). It’s fun to see them settle into their familiar banter while spending a day getting beautified at a spa. Their scenes are scattered throughout the film and always manage to lighten the mood, particularly when they attempt to prove their manhood by requesting increasingly aggressive work from their masseuses. Spurlock’s biggest missed opportunity is the Apatow interview. Here’s a director whose brilliantly humanistic comedies truly did alter America’s perception of what it meant to be male, exposing the complex and vulnerable psyche beneath the macho façade. The poster for “Mansome” clearly pays homage to the now infamous chest waxing scene in Apatow’s 2005 game-changer, “The 40-Year-Old Virgin.” This interview could’ve been pure gold, but Spurlock asks only for the director to provide fleeting counterpoints for audiences to consider, such as his dislike of the word, “metrosexual.”
Jason Bateman and Will Arnett are featured in Morgan Spurlock’s Mansome.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Paladin
In its final act, the film gains some belated momentum when it follows Ricky Manchanda on his desperate quest to perfect every inch of his effortlessly photogenic body. Manchanda has no qualms about being referred to as a metrosexual, and reveals that his well of insecurity stems from his lonely childhood, when he was a member of the only Indian family on his block. You get the feeling that it won’t be long before Manchanda will start looking like Joan Rivers. His story is a tragic microcosm of a society that has its priorities wildly out of balance. Galifianakis clearly feels no need to buckle under the peer pressure of men’s health magazines, and yet his thoughts about his own appearance are limited to a brief self-deprecating gag. “Mansome” is frustrating in its reluctance to delve into the darkness of American vanity, opting instead to deliver breezy anecdotes. Oddly enough, the most moving and truthful moment in the entire film takes place when Spurlock shaves off his trademark mustache, which causes his young son to burst into tears. The boy’s little world has been rocked by this sudden abrupt change, and his reaction speaks more volumes about the “power of looks” than any number of clever quips from A-List stars.