What makes a man shave his chest? Sport a hirsute, ridiculously long and absurd-looking beard? Bleach his anus, thread his eyebrows or play around with his facial hair in any number of manscaping ways? These are some of the questions posed in Morgan Spurlock's latest cheery and congenial documentary, "Mansome."
And the music in Spurlock's documentaries of late are always a dead give-away of what's in store tone-wise (in case it’s not obvious): generally a jovial, breezy and blithe ol' time for what's usually an 80-minute trifle. And "Mansome," the documentarian’s latest, is an amiable look at male grooming, and therefore as a byproduct, masculinity too (though it's not a focus), and it falls safely and neatly into a pleasant tone.
Executive-produced by "Arrested Development" buddies Jason Bateman and Will Arnett, the doc frames itself around these two friends going to a spa and comically discussing and exploring the ideas of manhood and where male-grooming fits into the concept of modern masculinity, cutting back and forth to the duo as a clever device in between stories.
Featuring myriad talking heads, comedians like Judd Apatow, Paul Rudd, Zach Galifinakis, anthropologists, mustachioed directors like John Waters, the always-insufferable Adam Carolla, Old Spice guy Isaiah Mustafa, Spurlock himself and many more, one can't help but relate very subjectively to the look into the minutia of hair-grooming, especially if you're a male. "For lack of a better word, it's kind of gay," says Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian who himself sports a long billy-goat goatee, of the entire concept of manscaping and professional beard competitions. And frankly, this writer can't agree more, and that statement of Ian’s pinpoints the pointlessness of the topic at hand. It’s a cute obsession some of these people have, but the bulk of the testimonials kind of boil down to: “Who cares?” And that sentiment is one that many will be able to relate to.
While admittedly entertaining on a TV-like, channel surfing level, what should be a fascinating exploration of the male psyche, his security, lack thereof, sense of masculinity and appearance, instead tends to be a light and unenlightening look at these various topics often because the doc is focusing on the painfully trivial. Does male grooming mean men aren't men or is daily hygiene a fact of modern life? Do you have time to even care?
Told through various interviews of the famous and not so famous, while the doc visits old school barber shops, trendy salons and everything in between, much of the picture centers on two polar opposites, the professional beardsman, Jack Passion, who competes in a famous Austrian beard contest, and a former devoted Sikh turned New York metrosexual, and while both are comical extremes of their spectrums, its impossible to connect to either of them. The latter is deeply insecure, having endured wearing a turban during the difficult and humiliating teenage years and it's manifested in a metrosexuality that's gone way overboard. The former looks at himself as a philosophical symbol of old school gentlemanliness and virility, sporting a goofishly long red beard that he wears down to his waist. The irony is in the classic hunter/gatherer sense of a man, he is the ultimate example of our culture's quiet self-created emasculation as Caucasian wealth offers some the luxury of being entirely useless. This is a guy who for all intents and purposes is worthless, provides no function in society outside of sporting a beard. In Neanderthal times, this “man,” would likely be clubbed to death and fed to some lowly and hungry unwanted tribe.
Some time is spent with an elderly hairdresser who fashions ultra-realistic toupees that even fool wives, but the psychological trauma of being follically challenged is mostly a lost opportunity throughout. And mainly because it's not that cute, funny or ridiculously quirky or absurd, which is where the doc would rather devote its time.
While clearly delightful to some audiences, there is undoubtedly a facile and easygoing tone that runs throughout. While the doc occasionally raises interesting questions about the male psyche, it generally has no interest in answering and exploring them in any meaningful way. And this is fine and all since it’s largely by design, but funny and substantive are always going to be greater than cute and cursory.
So while all filmmakers are free to make the films they want to make, the genial, maybe even somewhat dopey, "Hey guys!" tone of Spurlock's films of late ("Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope" and this film) are so pleasant but slight they make one yearn for the years of the documentarian’s "serious" years with "Super Size Me" and the TV reality show "30 Days." Now Spurlock is a veritable documentary cottage industry with a sweet spot niche of banal pop-cultural subjects that seem to find easy funding, so he'll make what he wants to make, but not only do his docs feel like they're on a affable auto-pilot, they seem better suited for something you might enjoy at home in between commercials rather than something that deserves to be on the big screen potentially eating up precious doc film space.
Ironcially, Spurlock is quickly becoming the populist McDonald's fast food brand of documentaries, palatable, easy to digest for the layman, and not too fussy or complex. We can't wait for the documentaries about Pez dispenser collections or the obsession some have with Apple products. In a way, Spurlock takes steps closer to becoming the champion of everything inessential, speaking for an audience entirely made up of people with large disposable incomes. Ultimately, while superficially pleasant and entertaining, "Mansome" is just yet another look at man-children who can spare the time and luxury to be focused on their looks: a shallow and vain endeavour if there ever was one. [C-]