It’s a bad day for Larry (Timothy Bottoms) when he wakes up in his lavish new home in Los Angeles to find his wife is nowhere in the house, her meds apparently flushed down the toilet, and it’s his day to host men’s group.
Welcome to the Men’s Group assembles a gathering meant to provide therapy through fellowship and a ceremonial bitch session. With a 10-year history, enough time has passed that everyone has an ax to grind with someone in the group, usually over a woman. Director Joseph Culp’s film seeks to entertain and enlighten. It achieves some of both.
The drama is thin, however, dealing with first-world problems with dollar amounts in the millions and kinks that are no more creative than momentarily contemplating a fling with a friend’s adult daughter. Smoldering years-long resentments inspire ineffectual slap fights and vigorous shouting.
Just when it seems nothing better is going to happen, Carl (Stephen Tobolowsky) takes center stage to liven up the party. Carl’s wife and daughter have thrown him out and gone on a spending spree with his credit cards, driving him to lose his shit in a manic display of desperation. Always game to throw himself into a part, Tobolowsky offers his wild-eyed “fuck it, let’s do this” approach to acting. He was always fun to watch in HBO’s Californication series and does not disappoint in this film either.
The similarity to Californication is striking in other ways. Welcome to the Men’s Group plays like a long, less interesting, episode of that show. One can imagine a better film with David Duchovny’s Hank Moody drunkenly taking the piss out of their pretentious bullshit with gleefully sadistic articulation. To be followed by a real fight, culminating in someone drowning in the pool. Now that’s a party.
To add literal skin to the game, the filmmakers explore full-monty free-balling nudity. Eschewing the typical display of fit female parts, brave new world: there’s dad bod ween aplenty here, making us thankful for decades of penis-free cinema and hopeful that we shall soon flee once again to the safety of a new dark age.
“…driving him to lose his shit in a manic display of desperation…“
Larry’s daughter Olivia and her friend interrupt a primal naked group man-dance in the living room. Olivia is mortified and bolts in horror, but the other young woman gazes transfixed at the collected middle-aged, hairy, paunchy, ruin of maleness as if aroused by the sight like it was a Magic Mike show. Her reaction should be more in the neighborhood of ”ew” followed by a prolonged Silkwood shower. Kudos to the actress for her demonstrated dramatic skill.
Hand-wringing over men failing to express their feelings has resulted in opining how much healthier it would be for us to emote freely. If this film depicts the results, then I’m not so sure. It might be preferable to hew to the time-honored model of men as laconic bastards who either suck it up forever or eventually act out in a sudden eruption of frustration (I.E.: writing snarky film reviews and other inflammatory behavior).
American Beauty, for example, was far more entertaining with the protagonist, Lester Burnham, throwing off adulthood and reverting to adolescence. On the other hand, this ended badly for Lester.
Mostly, nobody cares how men feel, least of all men. When partners complain that men aren’t sensitive enough, what they really mean is “he’s not sensitive enough to me.” We are still expected to shut the hell up about the daily slings and arrows. George Bailey had to learn to take the measure of himself in the value he provided to his family and people of Bedford Falls, never mind what he wanted. This culture is not ready for men emoting.
I say this while noting there are younger men who are fine sharing their emotions. Older generations defined manhood a different way. But we’ll be dead before you know it and the planet will be yours, so don’t listen to anyone who says you should get off their lawn. I’m sure you probably have a very good reason to be there and can articulate precisely and passionately what perceived offenses brought you to such a sorry state. You do you.
“…therapy through fellowship and a ceremonial bitch session…“
It’s problematic that Welcome to the Men’s Group focuses on the angst of wealthy, older guys in Los Angeles. It’s too specific of a lens through which to view American male culture and it doesn’t scale. There are no weepy men’s groups in flyover states (well, probably fewer, anyway). The filmmakers should spend six months working blue collar jobs in the Midwest. They’d see men with very different fears, problems, and responses. Not to say the L.A. experience is invalid, just that it’s neither representative nor relatable (unless you happen to be a rich dude in Beverly Hills. If so, then this is the movie for you). The group has no Black men, Gay men, Trans men: not much of a test sample. A more authentic men’s group can be found in the documentary The Work. The prison peer therapy is brutal and threatens real violence, but seems to have positive results.
The edit of this film is bloated. 130 minutes is 40 minutes too long, especially since the action largely centers on a conversation in one room. Yes, I know The Hateful Eight is in one room and runs over 3 hours, but it packs a lot more firepower.
Films promoting self-improvement are suspect as they are prone to being preachy. To succeed, the filmmaker must create an experience so overwhelmingly entertaining the viewer forgets he/she is being improved upon. This film misses that mark, despite some engaging moments in the attempt.
Welcome to the Men’s Group (2018) Directed by Joseph Culp. Written by Scott Ben-Yasher, Joseph Culp. Starring Timothy Bottoms, Stephen Tobolowsky, Joseph Culp.
6 out of 10