Tribeca Film Festival 2012: ‘Mansome’ + ‘Knife Fight’

Two entertaining movies, both premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, focus on a candid truth that we must project images of ourselves to get what we want out of life. It’s superficial but also undeniable that our looks, appearances, and the impressions we make on other people, in this world — matter. Mansome by Morgan Spurlock and Knife Fight by Bill Guttentag have fun with that notion.

Mansome (Photo credit: Warrior Poets)

Although promoted as a “sexual politics” documentary, Mansome (a made-up word, combining “masculine” and “handsome”) is basically a comedy. Concluding that men groom themselves to help define their identities and to attract women, the film does not offer cutting-edge or provocative revelations. Yet it is funny and original.

Spurlock, perhaps best known for his Oscar-nominated documentary Super Size Me, presents several odd “manscaping” vignettes. Movie-goers travel with Jack Passion to Austria as he competes in an international beard and mustache championship. They accompany pro wrestler Shawn Daivari while he gets his back shaved and explains the extreme hair and makeup regimen required of a live “action hero”. They observe Ricky Manchanda, a clothing buyer, getting his eyebrows threaded. Manchanda has taken his interest in his personal grooming, (manicures, tanning sessions, facials, laser skin treatments) to a heightened level, constantly reading up on trends and cosmetic procedures. He admits, “My looks have become my hobby. Am I a metrosexual? Absolutely. Without a doubt.”

Interspersed among the featured stories, academics, celebrities, experts, men and women provide comments and confessions on different aspects of male grooming:

“Deep down, secretly every guy wants to know what he looks like with a mustache.”

“If you look like you can’t build a shelf, I won’t sleep with you.”

Executive producers, actors Jason Bateman and Will Arnett, appear on-camera throughout the film as they undergo multiple beauty treatments in what appears to be an all-day trip to a spa. They discuss men’s grooming efforts and how that relates to masculinity.

As part of their banter, friendly competitiveness to demonstrate their masculinity mixes in with their often ridiculous discussions of manhood. While in a sauna, Arnett refers to an attractive but hirsute woman he once dated as “mustachioed.” Bateman suggests the term “mustached” but staking his dominance, Arnett confidently reasserts his original term, “mustachioed.”

Although far from serious sociological commentary, the film successfully pokes fun at the differences in how we still judge men and women. Bateman’s and Ackerman’s blatant competitiveness remains a sign of masculinity, behavior stereotypically less acceptable for women.

While undergoing massages, they jokingly challenge each other as to who can handle the harder pounding: “I’m a bit more of a man. I can take it.”

The movie’s charm lies in the characters’ not taking themselves too seriously and in their abilities to laugh at themselves. Actor Zach Galifianakis (The Hangover movies) sports a scraggly, red beard and hefty lumberjack style. When asked about his own appearance on a scale from one to ten, Galifianakis answers: “To certain people, I’m probably a one. And then to other people, I’m a strong two.”

The movie does not set out to educate, shock or offend people. It playfully entertains with a cheeky, honest confession of male vanity in its many, quirky and vulnerable forms.

Rob Lowe. Photo Credit: Angeline Herron

Knife Fight

To win an election, it’s not just how you look physically, but how you look overall — and not just to a potential mate but to the public. Cultivating an image, grooming for a political office requires a much thicker skin. “To win in politics you’ve got to be the person who is willing to bring a gun to a knife fight,” says political strategist Paul Turner (Rob Lowe).

Two-time Oscar winning director and filmmaker Bill Guttentag teamed up with political operative Chris Lehane to co-write Knife Fight, a fictional behind-the-scenes look at campaigns. Turner’s character is based on Lehane, who previously served as special assistant counsel to President Bill Clinton and press secretary for Vice President Al Gore and the Gore-Lieberman campaign.

Lowe reunites with West Wing co-star, Richard Schiff, who plays Dimitris, an experienced, shady, behind the scene campaign handler. The bright, young, up-and-coming Kerstin (Jamie Chung) serves as Turner’s protégé in the fast-paced, cutthroat world of people “in it to win it”. Their clients include a Kentucky governor (Eric McCormack) whose affair with a young intern surfaces in the midst of a campaign; a California senator (David Harbour) blackmailed by a former prostitute/ masseuse; and an ethical, compassionate doctor (Carrie-Anne Moss) who runs a low-income medical clinic. She wants to be the next governor of California for all the right reasons.

In an April 25 Tribeca Talk, political reporter Mark Halperin moderated a discussion with Guttentag, Lehane and Republican campaign strategist, Steve Schmidt, who had a cameo role in the film. (As John McCain’s campaign manager in the 2008 elections, Schmidt also prominently appeared in Halperin’s best selling non-fiction, Game Change.)

Guttentag and Lehane wanted the film, although a satire, to capture the appeal of true-life political dramas.

“The film lives and dies on if you feel you are right in the room,” said Guttentag. “So, I think for our process, while we were writing it, as we were doing it, we kept saying does this feel true? Does this feel real? And I think if you’re pulled in that way then it enables you to buy into the story.”

Lehane described the film as a “love letter” to political operators who believe in a process much bigger than themselves. As Turner explained to Kerstin, Lehane said, “These are tough campaigns. This is how the game is played but at the end of the day there are very noble ends. You have people flawed just like anyone in life, who can run for office but they can also do enormously powerful things.”

Lehane emphasized the critical consequences at stake in politics. He felt very proud to have had a role in the election of people who have done tremendously positive things for this country and for the world.

“It’s that space where cynicism and idealism collide together. You’re trying to win this election. You believe in this candidate. You come to believe these are people that have great strengths but also great flaws,” said Schmidt. He said people who work on campaigns want to advance the county’s future but cynicism enters in as to what you have to do to win a campaign. This tension central to the film resonated with him.

As documented in Game Change, Schmidt had strong regrets about Sarah Palin’s suitability for vice president.

In a Huffington Post article, Geoffrey Dunn quoted Schmidt on the choice of Palin, a selection initially focused on perceived political gain.

“I think that she helped usher in an era of know-nothingness, and mainstreamed it in the Republican Party to the detriment of the conservative movement… And I think her nomination trivialized American politics, and had a lot of results that I’m not particularly comfortable with. And, of course, you know, I had a very personally difficult relationship with her during the campaign. But it was a mistake. There’s just no two ways about it.”

As with true politics, the film’s charismatic figures showboat with entertaining, often barbed sound bites. The movie provides pleasant light fare as comedy, but does not offer substantive food for thought. Although produced in time for the 2012 election cycle, it’s a movie you most likely have seen before.

The groundbreaking documentary War Room provided a uniquely insightful look at the gritty resolve, gut intelligence, organization and stamina required to power a campaign to victory. The subsequent laundry list of political movies including Wag the Dog, Primary Colors and Knife Fight lack the punch of fresh originality.

The film is enjoyable as light-hearted satire that does not realistically convey a struggle in questioning whether the ends justify the means. That ethical question takes shape as a straw man superficially constructed only to tear down without much deliberation. Knife Fight too repetitively and simplistically hits its audience over the head with a slightly sanctimonious theme of being kingmakers for the greater good.

Knife Fight Panel by Betsy Kim:

Steve Schmidt, Chris Lehane, Bill Guttentag and Mark Halperin.