There are really three films in one in Mansome. The first is a collection of celebrity talking heads discussing masculinity and what it means to be a man who grooms in the 21st century. This is facilitated, and bookended, by producers Jason Bateman and Will Arnett who appear in the movie getting a variety of spa treatments. The talking heads speak to the circles these two move in and include Paul Rudd, Judd Apatow and Adam Carolla.
This is far and away the weakest and most self-indulgent movie on display here. Bateman and Arnett are, as ever, charming but their sections feel forced and scripted. Of the talking heads, a couple make good points; Apatow’s discussion of the relationship between baldness, self-delusion and confidence is perceptive, funny and in desperate need of about ten more minutes of screen time for example.
Unfortunately, many of the others confuse a discussion of male grooming with an excuse to hold forth on how difficult it is to be a man in the 21st century. Adam Carolla’s contributions are especially, and egregiously, worthless but he’s far from the only offender. This is the first and worst sin the movie could possibly commit, veering off the idea of how masculinity has evolved into out and out whining from the last men on Earth in any position to do so. It almost torpedoes the entire movie and is only saved by the other two films essayed here.
The second one you get spins out of the first and is, for the most part, much more fun. It’s a discussion of the various ways that grooming has changed in the last century. This includes interviews with barbers like Kamal Naru and Carmine Pisacreta, a Hair Replacement Specialist. Naru is especially interesting, as he reveals that whilst the barbershop is a male preserve, he’s regularly invited to family events by his customers. The barber is trusted and revered, and that’s clear from Pisacreta’s sequence too. We see him carefully build ‘systems’ for bald men, talking to them the whole time in a room that’s one part surgery, one part office. He takes an impression of their heads, sculpts it, fits the hair to the impression and combs and cuts it into place. The transformation in both the men and your perception is extraordinary. What starts off looking like ludicrous self-delusion becomes completely invisible. The extra set of his client’s shoulders when they leave though? That you can’t fail to see.
This concept of grooming as a means of both managing hygiene and confidence is the best idea the movie never quite manages to engage with. A passing sound bite refers to the barber shop as ‘the third place’, not work or home but somewhere that clients can be themselves. That idea is fascinating and, like so much here, deserves far more screen time than it gets. There is however some interesting stuff about the masculine identity and how it’s tied into physical appearance. Spurlock, in his one appearance in front of the camera, addresses this directly as he gets his trademark moustache shaved off. He views himself completely differently once it’s gone but his young son only notices the difference when he points out. He panics and bursts into tears, with Spurlock having to reassure him he’s still his daddy. That idea of grooming changing identity as we, and others, perceive it is, thankfully, addressed in the third and best film you get here.
Spurlock follows three men whose lives revolve, to some extent, around grooming. The first, Jack Passion, is a self-proclaimed ‘Beardsman’ or beard athlete. His huge, straight beard is almost half his height and he has to sleep with it braided. We follow him and Beard Team USA as they enter the European Beard and Moustache Competition and, along the way, are treated to Passion’s beliefs about his facial hair and what it means. He’s an eloquent, and utterly po-faced, advocate for facial hair and Beard Growing as a sport and it’s almost impossible to tell if he’s serious or not. There’s the slightest hint of parody precisely because he’s so intense and the end result is a slightly uneasy section of the film that holds your attention far more than anything that’s gone before.
Shawn Daivari, a professional wrestler, has none of Passion’s front but all of his eloquence. Daivari is an affable, completely honest presence who anchors the centre of the movie. He works in an industry where image is everything and whilst he’s physically hugely impressive, he has a problem; he’s hairy. Daivari shaves his entire body almost daily and the irony of following Passion and his chest pounding with someone who has to shave to fit into a physical industry isn’t lost. Daivari’s an amiable soul and has no problem grooming. He views it the same way as working out, just a part of the process he needs to go through in order to work.
The idea that grooming is an integral part of identity is the common thread that ties Passion to Daivari and both of them to Ricky Manchanda. Manchanda is a New York based clothes buyer and a man whose identity was defined by his appearance. He’s another honest voice in a movie filled with too much artifice; the lone Sikh at his high school who viewed cutting his braid off as a defining moment of both rebellion and identity. The interesting thing Spurlock lets us see, rather than telling us outright, is that it doesn’t make Manchanda any less a product of his upbringing. He’s a smart, well dressed and successful young man who is still a vital member of his family but under his own terms. It’s a stylistic continuation of Daivari’s efforts to fit into his profession and Spurlock uses it to show us the sort of relaxed, confident masculine identity that Passion and some of the other talking heads endlessly discuss but don’t come close to. Manchanda, like Daivari, is engaging with the world on his terms and uses grooming as a tool rather than a goal. It’s a smart, affirming note to finish the movie on.
Unfortunately, the film doesn’t finish there as we get one last round of talking heads and a sign off from Bateman and Arnett. It’s a real shame too, as, when Mansome actually focuses on individuals, it’s fascinating. Passion, for all his arrogance, is an interesting subject as are Daivari and Manchanda but they’re lost under an avalanche of celebrities and half-formed concepts. It’s a cheap gag certainly but in the end, Mansome is a film that could definitely afford to lose more than a little off the top.