Morgan Spurlock, the clown prince of documentary filmmaking, has examined fast food (“Super Size Me”) and product placement (“The Greatest Movie Ever Sold”). Now, in the just-released"Mansome,” he turns his attention to the somewhat surprising topic of men’s grooming, enlisting champion beard growers, hirsute celebrities and a grab bag of barbers, anthropologists and magazine editors to bring the discussion of men’s looks and masculinity out of the closet and into the bright light of day.
“My ‘aha’ moment was the realization that men are dealing with the insecurities women have literally been dealing with for decades,” Spurlock says. “Now I’m being told I’m not perfect, I’m being told by this magazine I’m fat, I’m being told that I’m not good enough, and that I need to change the way I live if I want to please my woman. These are things that used to be on the cover of Cosmopolitan and are now on the cover ofMen’s Health, Esquire and Details. Now that there are all these things wrong with us, how do [men] find out what’s right for us? That’s part of what the film taps into.”
And the timing couldn’t be better. Spurlock’s exploration of masculine identity via manscaping premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last month and hit theaters in New York City and Los Angeles on Friday, amid a men’s grooming boom. According to Chicago-based research firm Mintel, sales of men’s toiletries (a category that includes deodorants, hair care, skin care and shaving) at the mass market level is forecast to hit $2.56 billion in 2012, up more than 15% from 2006, and $3.19 billion by 2016. Mintel’s research also found that 25- to 34-year-olds are the men most likely to use hair-styling products and moisturizers and to have their body hair waxed.
Though Spurlock doesn’t take any credit for the timing — he was tapped for the project by first-time executive producers Will Arnett and Jason Bateman, who had developed the idea with another executive producer, Ben Silverman — he says now is the perfect time to start a dialogue about masculinity and male grooming rituals.
“More women are in the workplace, are the breadwinners, now,” he said. “It’s 50-something percent to 40-something percent, so there’s a real feeling among men that if they’re not the breadwinner, if they’re not chopping things down or skinning things and that the division of labor and responsibility has been equally split, then what makes us men? I thought that was a great conversation to have as a jumping-off point.”
And “Mansome” does feel more like the kind of loosely structured conversation a group of guys might have than it does a documentary. One of the reasons for that is the occasional presence of Bateman and Arnett, who decamp to a day spa at the movie’s outset. Their awkward-seeming indulgences in manicure-pedicures, facials and massages and musings on the machinations of maleness provide the barest of through lines.
Spurlock kicks off his quest for the meaning of manliness right in front of his own nose by bidding farewell to the distinctive upside-down horseshoe of a mustache that’s defined his own look for the last decade — a move that makes him realize just how much his facial fuzz has become part of who he is, both to himself and those around him (the reaction of his then-5-year-old son is priceless).
From there, he turns his focus to a handful of men who represent the wide range of attitudes toward male grooming rituals, introducing them in a series of free-form vignettes. One of the more memorable subjects is champion beard grower Jack Passion, a follicularly well-endowed fellow well known on the competitive facial hair circuit who has turned his bountiful beard into a cottage industry of its own featuring books, T-shirts and stardom on the IFC reality series “Whisker Wars.”
Another is Ricky Manchanda, a New York City-based clothing company executive. Growing up as a Sikh, Manchanda spent his already awkward years in a tightly wrapped turban. He has turned the trauma of childhood teasing into a never-ending quest to tweak his physical appearance with a regimen that includes tanning, facials, eyebrow threading and exploring the latest laser skin treatments.
In a way, these two men bookend the polar opposite approaches to men’s grooming — the former leveraging his natural tonsorial talents so that he stands out, while the latter scrubs, polishes, tans and tweaks his way to physical perfection so that he doesn’t. The rest of “Mansome’s” motley band of menfolk and experts help sketch out the current landscape of the manscape. They include Shawn Daivari, whose job as a professional wrestler requires that he engage in the Sisyphean task of shaving his entire body; toupee-maker Carmine Pisacreta; the Las Vegas entrepreneurs behind a grooming product for the groin (the name of which isn’t appropriate for a family newspaper); Cosmopolitan’s editor in chief Kate White; biological anthropologist Helen Fisher; and beard expert Allan Peterkin.
Along the way, Spurlock relies on an impressive laundry list of celebrities to provide comic commentary — Zach Galifianakis, John Waters, ZZ Top’s Dusty Hill and Billy Gibbons, Judd Apatow, Paul Rudd, Anthrax’s Scott Ian and über-curmudgeon Adam Carolla. The tongue-in-hairy-cheek approach to the subject matter topic was no accident.
“What I wanted to do with the film is what male [grooming product] advertising has done for years, and that’s use humor and irreverence to get you engaged,” he said. “Whether it’s Axe [body spray] or Old Spice [using] Isaiah Mustafa [who also appears in the film], because men don’t respond to that Enjoli ‘I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan’ kind of thing. Humor is what’s going to cater to a male audience, so I wanted to make sure we had comedians who would help bring a [sense of] levity to the topic.... When people laugh, they let their guard down and you have the potential for a bigger conversation.”
Spurlock’s taking a page from a winning playbook; the humor-meets-hygiene approach has been successful. Old Spice and Axe are two of the three brands (Degree is the other) that Mintel’s 2012 report on deodorant and antiperspirant use says “seem to have a greater resonance with adults aged 18-24,” due in no small part to Old Spice’s humorous ads and Axe’s risque, innuendo-laden, not wholly unfunny campaigns.
A recently released study by market research firm NPD Group found that while slightly more than 9 in 10 men ages 18 and older use any kind of grooming product at all, only a quarter of the same demographic reported using facial skin-care products. Still, according to NPD, that segment of the market grew 11% in dollar sales at the luxury and department store level from 2010 to 2011. In announcing the “Men’s Grooming Consumer Report,” NPD’s vice president and senior global industry analyst Karen Grant cited “a huge opportunity” in the facial skin-care segment of the men’s grooming market. “The challenge,” she said, “is getting them involved and engaged.”
Could “Mansome” manifest the level of involvement and engagement that will change consumer behavior? Can Spurlock’s pull-the-pin-and-roll-the-grenade approach put male grooming in the cross hairs of the pop culture conversation as something beyond freakish or effeminate?
Only time will tell. But, there’s already anecdotal evidence that the film has at least the potential to influence behavior.
“After the premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival I had a gentleman come up to me,” Manchanda says. “He said: ‘I’ve had this unibrow and I’ve been afraid of what to do because people have gotten used to seeing me with a unibrow, but after seeing the movie and seeing you go through the threading [procedure], I’ve decided that next week I’m going to go get this thing threaded and shaped.’”