Life can be pretty confusing for a 21st century male: not sure whether he should be concerned about his outward appearance or not, and if he is, how much he can be concerned about these things without drawing the contempt and ire of his fellow men. Or so goes the premise of Morgan Spurlock’s latest cursory documentary. Seeking to address the (apparently) important grooming issues facing men the world over, Spurlock, along with producers Jason Bateman and Will Arnett, visits with a variety of American men as they search for their identity through various forms of obsessive beauty regimens, ranging in scope from a world-champion beard grower to a self-consciously hirsute pro wrestler. All of this effort was undertaken with the express goal of shedding some light on a central question about men and their relationship with physical beauty and appearance. Presented without very much history or context, the very question presented by the film becomes meaningless by its end.
The film is segmented rather neatly into vignettes about several men who are (presumably) meant to represent a decent sampling of the myriad problems of physical appeal that daunt modern man. The aforementioned world-champion beardsman, Jack Passion, is fascinating in his dedication to maintaining an impressively long, impossibly red beard. The film does a very good job of detailing his exercise regimen — his specialized diet designed to foster a brilliant shine — and follows him to an international beard competition in Europe. His obsession is treated as a source for humor, which is just fine. However, the way Spurlock and Co. treat Passion’s (I’m trying my best not to use the word passion right here) enthusiasm for his facial hair doesn’t really do anything to illuminate the larger issue of male beauty. The other subjects, while entertaining in their own right, do not seem connected to each other; rather than cohesively representing a larger whole, they just seem haphazardly thrown together.
There’s a fair amount of pop psychology and laughable stabs at utilizing the most basic evolutionary biology concepts to explain that men are unnaturally taming themselves by paying so much attention to their physical appearance (of course the natural question, “and women somehow aren’t?” is never asked). Spliced between these segments is an ongoing conversation between Arnett and Bateman about what it means to be a man. While this routine of theirs lends a genuine humor to the film, the essential sight gag of the whole thing — watching them get massages, put cucumber slices over their eyes, wear plush robes, etc. — plays into stereotypes about manly behavior that might have worked for Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon, but that come across as sorely outdated in the present moment. Honestly, if the film had been a short consisting solely of the conversation between Arnett and Batemen, it would have been worthy bonus material on any number of comedic DVDs.
Perhaps if Mansome had shifted its focus to the contrast between the traditions of male and female beauty and the underlying ways in which that difference is kind of a weird thing, it wouldn’t come off as flat as it does. But as it is, the film fails to show its audience anything truly remarkable about an industrialized male’s relationship to his body and its appearance. The jokes are fairly corny, too.