The film shows the major shift in men’s consciousness and the changing attitudes towards traditional models of masculinity that are evolving every day. It is a challenging look at “male vulnerability”. It also uses humor and irreverence to celebrate the zaniness and absurdity of men – “Irreverence is the doorway to the sacred.” Ultimately the film shows a group of flawed men in a noble, painful and outrageously funny struggle to find their authenticity and a sense of community, and invites us, both men and women, to do the same.
So says the synopsis of the new feature film “Welcome to the Men’s Group”, a film that satirises men’s work the way, for argument’s sake, the TV series “Portlandia” satirises hipsters. The difference being, arguably, that hipsterism is an aesthetic movement with no aspirations beyond its own subculture, while men’s work is concerned with the identity and role within society of an entire gender. That men’s work is seen as a fit target for satire suggests that such efforts are considered to be “punching up”.
I was granted a preview of the film, due for release at the end of the year, as a result of my association with the Good Men Project. By the time I had reached the 45-minute mark I had so many misgivings about it that I had to put the film on pause. In other circumstances I simply would have abandoned the viewing.
Eddie: “Larry, where’s your wife and daughter this morning?”
Larry: “My daughter spent the night at a college friend’s house. She actually wanted to stay here. She wanted to eavesdrop on us.”
Neil: “What does she think we do?”
Larry: “She says she thinks we run around in a circle with our weenies hanging out flapping.”
And having set this premise as the caricature of what the general public thinks men’s groups get up to, the film then unfolds a chain of circumstances where this eventuates, topped off by the group being busted by Larry’s daughter returning home. We are meant to feel embarrassed for them, and for Larry’s daughter as an inadvertent witness to the spectacle; personally, I feel embarrassed for the audience, who are being asked to laugh at the depths of absurdity a men’s group can presumptively go to, and to accept the turn of events that got them there.
It starts with Carl, who is taken with the idea of removing his clothes in front of the other men, and though he is challenged by the group we are given no real explanation of his motive. As the group takes a break, Carl acts out his intention, stripping naked in the backyard before pouring a bag of manure fertiliser over his head and leading the rest of the group on a “merry chase” through the house and out onto the busy street to play chicken with the oncoming traffic. The group bargains with him to join him in his nudity if he will stop risking his life, to which he agrees, and they head back inside.
Carl has effectively held the group to ransom using his own personal safety as the bargaining chip. It is a manipulation that attracts no further inquiry. The men are shown getting lost in the novelty of the exercise, where a response of anger and a demand of accountability seems more appropriate. By the time Larry’s daughter bursts in on them, I am feeling angry at and manipulated by the film’s narrative.
That this sequence is the centerpiece of the film tells you a lot about the film’s values, and its problems. Is this celebrating the “zaniness and absurdity of men”? Firstly, I don’t know whether the audience is expected to believe that this would never happen in a typical men’s group, or that the cliché is true and that it would. It is either meant to be funny because it isn’t real – which trivialises the importance and value of the subject; or funny because it is real – which actually isn’t funny at all. If our first impulse is to laugh, we should stop, because it is incredibly sad that we have so much shame about our natural form that we should be embarrassed by it, and that our culture constantly encourages us to sexualise the naked body so that adult nudity is something we have to hide from each other’s view. Secondly, “zaniness and absurdity” is not some kind of “missing value” in men; it gets celebrated widely and effectively. If we’re really honest, the audience is being asked to embrace the “zaniness and absurdity” of men’s groups. That is really not a message that I think is in service to men, or the men’s movement.
Michael to Tom: “Do you dig what we’re doing here?”
Tom: “Ahm… I don’t know, man.”
Michael: “What? Tell me what you feel. I really want to know.”
Tom: “Well. Honestly, I really feel weird. Yeah, like I shouldn’t even be here. You said it was a men’s group, and I was interested, but you guys have, like, a lot of problems, man.”
Tom functions as the audience surrogate. He is the newcomer to the group, and a stay-at-home dad. Fatherhood and the role of the provider are strong themes throughout, and the film can be commended for its display of the range and complexity of the issues encompassed by these themes. But some of the opinions expressed in the group remind me that I am not part of the audience for this film.
Neil: “Every man wants to prove he’s got a bigger dick than his father”
Mohammed: “Presidents should have big dicks. We need leaders who won’t take shit from anyone”
Somewhere in this opening banter the film’s producers are counting on you in finding a character to relate to. Here the film sets up another problem: most of the characters are deeply troubled. When Tom’s turn to check-in with the group comes around, his life concerns and challenges are relatively lightweight by comparison. The others appear resentful, and it’s not long before one of them cuts him down verbally. They are, with the apparent exception of Tom, all highly dysfunctional. When Michael says, “we’re all con men here. We all have something to hide”, it is taken to speak to the truth of the group’s collective dysfunction. Is this more satire, or are we meant to accept this as some kind of universal truth for all men everywhere? If we miss the satire, there is another conclusion we can come to: men’s groups are for losers. It’s an unhealthy gambit.
I’m not even done cataloguing the potholes the film falls prey to in its representations of men’s groups. And it’s a shame, because there are some vital and penetrating issues raised by the film (even if it is short on answers), and we NEED men’s work. There are enough moments in this film to show that these issues are close to the heart of its creators. So what gives?
I don’t know, but maybe the market this film is released to isn’t ready to conceive of men facing their problems without being worthy of ridicule. Maybe the film’s creators felt they needed to pander to the general public’s derision of men’s groups in order to slip its message under the radar. It’s depressing to consider they may be right. And by no means do I wish to minimise that message, or the themes carried by the film, but I can’t pretend I’m not deeply concerned that the tactics employed are going to do more harm than good for men’s work, and therefore for men in general.
Men are looking for a place they can stand in power: not an artificial, externally-bestowed power, but an innate one that comes from understanding how their wounding drives them, and making sense of society’s expectations of them. They should be able to do that with a sense of reverence and honour and dignity, and if this is already missing from our culture the mixed messaging of “Welcome to the Men’s Group” does nothing to redress its absence.