Fetishize it all you want: foreign audiences aren’t that much more selective than American ones. Box office trends have cemented this: garbage like the “Twilight” series steadily earned more internationally than stateside, a pattern mimicked by most generic blockbusters, particularly with the overseas embrace of the tacky 3D format. Of course, one could argue that “Twilight” is an American brand corrupting the world, but it would neglect homegrown offal like “What A Man,” a German time-waster brought to our shores by Fox International, one that reflects that the cheap seats are the same in any language.
Writer-director Matthais Schweighofer stars as Alex, a boyish schoolteacher who seems to have success relating to his kids as a gentle babysitter more than an actual educator — must be the school systems. His lightweight personality extends to his home life, as girlfriend Carolin (Mavie Horbiger) bullies him and chastises his manhood all around. When he takes her to his friend’s birthday party, she proceeds to complain about the partygoers around her, who apparently eat too loud. Fascinating that she’s demonized by this perfectly average faux pas, as she rants and raves and causes a scene. It would be far more interesting, from a character-building perspective, if we were at any point allowed to take her side, if her character were not such an obviously demonic shrew.
Through a particularly unprintable sex injury, Carolin ends up in the hospital, where she’s forced to confess her dalliances with hunky next door neighbor Jens (Thomas Kretschmann). A commercial photographer (not to mention a Teutonic superman of sorts), Jens has found success with his colorful billboard tableaux, which Alex sees most every time he leaves the apartment. These massive photos usually feature some cartoony representation of courtship, and the man is usually far more tall and buff than the unassuming Alex. The fact that the woman is also stereotypically buxom and blonde seems to go unnoticed. Nor does anyone mention that this photographer seems to be able to score massive billboard space all over Germany, and yet shares an apartment building with a middle-class teacher like Alex.
Alex embarks on a quest to win Carolin back, even though we already know that character is a two-timing wasteland of a person. This suspense-less tract is filled with sequences of Alex experimenting with various masculinity-reaffirming activities, some of which (paintball?) seem decidedly arbitrary, as far as manliness goes. It’s a 1990s American studio movie-version of what today’s male heterosexuality is, cemented by Alex, clad in yesterday’s hip-hop fashion and approaching a gyrating dancer with the English language come-on, “Do you want to see my bling bling?”
It’s a good thing Alex has lifelong friend Nele (Sibel Kekilli) around to soothe his feelings of failure. Oh, hey, Nele is involved in an emotionally-distant relationship of her own. Oh, and Nele is also classically quite beautiful. She’s also sweet, funny and they have an easygoing chemistry. Huh. What could happen here? The movie trades one inevitability for another, as the two actually hook up a third of the way into the narrative, then begin to invent reasons for which they should not see each other. Movie reasons, but reasons nonetheless.
“What A Man” is as broad as they come, highlighted by a score that offers repeated riffs of the melody of the ’90s pop hit “What A Man” as Alex attends masculinity seminars in the woods, hacking at trees for the benefit of a madcap instructor who belongs in a lesser Todd Phillips comedy. Of course, there’s no real growth that Alex needs to show. He merely needs to commit, with the movie’s insistence that it was everyone else around him who was problematic. Probably true, but without those broad hijinks, we’d have a twenty-minute movie. Probably a more enjoyable one as well. [D]