How to Be a Man (2013)
Directed by Chadd Harbold
Written by Bryan Gaynor, Chadd Harbold, and Gavin McInnes
Story by Chadd Harbold
Mild spoilers ahead.
I love me some Gavin McInnes. From his appearances on Red Eye, to his pieces for Taki Mag, to his YouTube shorts, to his standup, to his book, to his previous feature-film, The Brotherhood of the Traveling Rants, I’m certainly a fan of his work, and a fan of him as a person, too—when I interviewed him here last year, he was a delight. Sweet and honest and gracious, the polar opposite of what his detractors might expect him to be based on his brash demeanor and polarizing views on all things life. I see him as a living embodiment of the phrase ‘warts and all’, and an inspiration to anyone who holds honesty as a virtue. A man as man ‘might be and ought to be’, to borrow a Rand-ism.
All this to say, I have a knot in my stomach as I write this review, because I have a duty to be honest here—a duty as a critic, of course, but also, a duty to Gavin and all that he stands for. He would not want me to sugarcoat my feelings on this film just because I like him. That would not be very manly of me. And so, here goes.
I did not like this movie.
I wanted to like it, of course. And as I found myself not liking it, I really did try my hardest to like it, even going so far as to switch off parts of my brain, doing my damnedest to sync to its wavelength, but alas—no dice. It’s not a good movie. But, it’s not entirely without merit. It’s got parts.
Gavin is a fun guy to watch do anything, so it’s pretty impossible for him to be in a movie and there not be some good parts. As such, let me make it very, very clear that this movie is worth watching, especially on Netflix Instant. You could do way, way worse on there. And, the issues I have with it, you may not even have. So, if you’d rather just watch it completely blind and have a wholly organic experience, avoid everything underneath this paragraph. I don’t get too spoiler-y, but I break down its flaws pretty thoroughly.
The main problem with this movie is that it suffers from too-many-days syndrome. A great screenwriting rule of thumb is to tell your story over as few days as possible—the fewer the better. That way, each day matters. John Hughes is great at this—The Breakfast Club or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off are obvious examples, but a better example would be Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Try and take a day out of that movie, condensing the events of one into another. You can’t. They’re on the road together for the exact right length of time, and you feel every moment of it. Fuck 3D glasses—giving days this sort of reach-out-and-touch-them quality is one of the best ways to make a film feel truly three-dimensional.
How to Be a Man’s story is practically begging to be told over a single day, with maybe an epilogue taking place the next morning, but no more than that. If you don’t know anything about the movie, here’s the premise: it’s about a guy who discovers he has breast cancer and will be dead before his pregnant wife gives birth, so he decides to make a whole bunch of short videos around NYC for his son to teach him how to be a man, and hires a college kid to help him do that. Great premise, instantly interesting. But, if days are passing by willy-nilly, and we’re seeing absolutely no change in his health whatsoever, the stakes, which started high initially, become non-existent. The film attempts to rectify this by every once in a while having Gavin say “I’m dying” with a serious face on, but these reminders have no weight.
If the story had been tweaked to take place over the course of a single day—for instance, maybe this is the last day he will feel fully himself and have enough energy to undertake a project like this, because tomorrow he has to begin intense chemotherapy or something—then the stakes would’ve remained high throughout. A structure like this would’ve benefited the movie immensely, in particular because the story follows the trope of a protagonist going increasingly off the rails into debauchery as the movie goes on, dragging a reluctant wingman with him. Condensing that energy and tension to a single day would have made the downward spiral feel way more rash and suspenseful. Movies like Edmond and Roger Dodger and Mikey and Nicky and Riding the Bullet work so well largely for this very reason—you feel like you’re really there, stuck on a fascinating yet uncomfortable ride that you can’t get off of. What’s worse is that, as I was watching it, I kept seeing what scenes they could’ve reordered or slightly tweaked in order to fit them all in one day. There was certainly room for it, had they thought to do it.
The script is underdeveloped in other areas too. Plot threads are created and abandoned arbitrarily, not in a winking-to-the-audience, deliberately anti-storytelling way, just in an ‘I don’t know what to do with this subplot but I’m too attached to it to just scrap it’ way—such as with the looming question mark over whether Gavin’s videographer Bryan could possibly be his son. This subplot is given consistent attention and carried very far into the story, then resolved by the videographer deciding he doesn’t actually care. We don’t see him come to any sort of deep realization about this, or find out the reason why he’s decided to feel this way—we’re just told he doesn’t care anymore, as though that should be enough for us. It wasn’t a necessary plot line to begin with—their bond means more if they’re just total strangers with no possible relation, because then the videographer is sticking with this unstable guy not out of obligation, but out of genuine fascination, which we, as viewers, can certainly understand—he’s captivating and different, and that’s all he needs to be. Inserting unresolved, half-baked mystery into the equation is gimmicky, and shows a lack of confidence in the material.
It’s not just through lines that are sloppily constructed, it’s characters are too—the most glaring example being the wife, who isn’t at all fleshed out and has zero chemistry with Gavin’s character, so much so that it’s unclear why they’re even together. The only moment of togetherness between them that we see is them joking around at a table briefly, and the shot is from far away for no reason, never letting us into their special moment to see any subtle expressions that might make us able understand their attraction. In contrast, all their other interactions involve them arguing in closeup. Shot choice matters—give me something to work with, let me get a sense of them beyond them bickering. Doesn’t have to be much, just has to be there at all.
Another character that sticks out as thin is Bryan’s roommate. His lines and delivery sound like someone doing a bad impression of someone they dislike, rather than an actual person, as though the joke of Bryan having an uptight roommate is so funny that why even bother constructing an actual character. Same goes for Gavin’s superior at work, his coke dealer at a gay bar, and a handful of other side characters. This is as much a directing problem as it is a script problem, because better line readings—or even better casting—might’ve saved a lot of these bits of dialogue, and made the movie’s world feel populated by people, not just cardboard cutouts.
I spoke about poor shot choice in regards to Gavin and his wife, but that’s definitely not an isolated issue. The cinematography here is bare-bones, with little to no regard for how best to express what is going on. In most scenes, they get away with it, because after all, this is a comedy, and comedy tends to get cut slack when it comes to visuals. However, there are several scenes that would’ve benefitted greatly from some finesse, such as an action scene that is very Jody Hill-esque, where Gavin bursts through a door and has an intense fight with a whole bunch of strangers—unfortunately, it’s barely shot at all, devoid of the care a director like Hill would’ve taken. It’s a shame, because it had the potential to be a very darkly funny scene—if shot well enough, it could’ve even been iconic. I understand the budget was low on this movie, but it’s not like I’m asking for intense steadicam work—just proper, deliberate shot composition. This sort of thing doesn’t cost a dime—you can do it with pen and paper, or in your head even.
I don’t mean to suggest through my issues with this film that these guys are lazy or dumb, or didn’t take making their movie seriously—I just think they were a bit out of their depth. Their background together is in making shorts, and that’s a completely different beast from features. They couldn’t be further from each other, as far as storytelling is concerned. It’s like the difference between composing a pop song and composing a concept album—both impressive feats when done well, but incomparable.
On top of this, there’s a certain degree of slapdash-ness to comedy shorts that is expected and accepted, and clearly they’ve gotten used to the comfort of that. But when you venture into features, all of that goes out the window, and you really should learn the new rules. Some, like David Wain, have made this leap look effortless. Others make the leap look insurmountable, like the sketch group Derrick Comedy, with their mess of a film Mystery Team.
Gavin’s previous film, The Brotherhood of the Traveling Rants, worked well largely because any residual slapdash-ness from him making shorts was fine, since the style was vérité doc, and thus, any aspects that were rough around the edges only served to made it feel more real. Had How to Be a Man been constructed in that same style, it might’ve been just as good, who knows.
If these guys are bent on venturing away from vérité though, my advice would be to carefully study the films of Albert Brooks, because I think Gavin would be perfect for that kind of role and that kind of film structure. Their style of humor is even very similar—the funniness coming from the honest conviction with which they say their lines, rather than from jokiness. Hell, in Lost in America, Brooks even plays a guy who quits an ad agency, like Gavin does in this movie.
I’d also suggest they check out the films of Eric Schaeffer. They’re similarly NYC-centric, and much like Gavin, the characters Eric plays in his films are essentially just opportunities for him to be himself and spout his actual opinions amidst semi-autobiographical occurrences. I find all Eric’s work enjoyable, but Fall in particular is an absolute masterpiece. It’s not a comedy, but the moments of comedy within it are very natural and beyond intimate, much like Gavin at his best.
The reason I care about all of this so much, the reason I’ve been so thorough with everything in this review (and trust me, I could’ve gone thorough-er) is that cinema needs Gavin. I could watch new YouTube shorts from him till the cows come home, but I see within him potential that exists way beyond that. He’s funny, he can handle drama, and he has a unique voice and brain. Independent cinema is currently devoid of bold personalities like his—in fact, it’s damn near decidedly anti-personality. Being yourself and having unique thoughts and wearing a lot of different hats is seen as narcissism—a cancer upon the breast of the medium that must be chided into remission. The hate is so great that it pissed Vincent Gallo off so much that he no longer releases the films he makes, just stores them away. That’s how bad it is out there.
So, Chadd and Bryan and Gavin, please step your game up, and fuck shit up in this awful industry. You’ve got momentum—all you need to do is point it in the right direction and be diligent. I believe in you guys, and look forward to whatever y’all do next.
2 1/2 out of 5 Codys.
P.S. This is Smug Film’s 200th post! Woo!