Small Family Comedy Introduces Some Big Talent

DIRECTED BY NATE BAKKE/2019 (Festival Release)

A few days ago I watched a movie about brothers going on a quest to reconnect with their dead father, while navigating their relationships with their mother and her new boyfriend, and learning lessons about themselves along the way.  I also watched Onward (insert rimshot).

It is, in fact, strange that the last two movies I watched mine so many of the same themes. It’s not entirely fair, though, to compare Onward, with the vast resources of Pixar behind it, to Man Camp, crowd funded and the first feature for almost everyone involved.  Given that disparity, what’s most surprising is how much I enjoyed Man Camp. Similar themes notwithstanding, it’s a wildly different film than Onward, but I recommend both movies. You don’t need me to review Onward, though. My fellow Zeke writer Jim Tudor has already done that, and you can read his thoughts here. 

For now let’s focus not on the Lightfoot brothers, but on the Mann men: Adam, Tim, and Kevin. Adam (Daniel Cummings) is a married father and the sensible everyman of the family. Tim (Scott Kruse) is a reckless commitment-phobe, the president of a fraternity even though he should have graduated from college several semesters ago.  The youngest, Kevin (Erik Stocklin), is a childlike, fantasy-loving nerd. The three twenty-somethings lost their father to illness 12 years ago, but his place in their minds seems to have only grown over time. He is remembered as the most manly Mann: a mustachioed, truck-driving, tree-chopping, fire-building titan who could kick your dad’s ass, even in heaven.  Every year the brothers spend a weekend at their family’s cabin, just as they did with their dad during his lifetime, practicing again all the masculine arts he taught them. This year’s “Man Camp” gets off to a rough start, though, when the Mann boys arrive at the cabin and discover their mother in an intimate moment with her new boyfriend, Alan (Peter Gardner).

The bulk of Man Camp is an extended campaign by the brothers to destroy Alan, or at least convince him to end his relationship with their mother.  Compared to the memories they carry of their father, Alan seems not only an unworthy successor for their mother’s attention, but inadequate as a man.  Alan is a scrapbooking, birdwatching vegetarian who responds to stressful moments by making tea and folding laundry. Mom heads home, but Alan accepts Tim’s invitation to stay and enjoy Mann Camp with the brothers.  Alan doesn’t know about Tim’s master plan, laid out on a hand drawn map, to torture – and possibly kill – the interloper. Remember the camping trip in The Parent Trap? It’s like that, only with more violence.

Man Camp is a broad yet charming comedy, with two significant problems.  One is it’s handling of the few female characters, particularly the mother, Theresa (Tammy Kaitz) and Adam’s wife, Katie (Anna Rubley).  There is a running joke through the movie about other men finding Katie “hot” and fantasizing about her, eliciting jealous reactions from Adam.  It’s a strange and soon tired joke, but it pales in comparison to the tone deafness around Theresa’s relationship with Alan. The notion that three grown men would be enraged that their long-widowed mother is in a relationship strains credulity, but it becomes truly uncomfortable when Adam is talking to his mother about whether or not he considers her a “whore”.  The sons’ sexist, objectifying treatment of their mother was hard for me to laugh at and became a hill the movie had to climb to win me over.

The movie’s other mistake is in shifting tone for the last third, becoming much darker and more serious.  Suddenly there are important lessons to be learned, and the grim earnestness doesn’t fit the rest of the movie. It also feels overlong because both the explanation for the dark twist and it’s resolution are obvious to the viewer before they’re revealed to the characters. Man Camp suffers from that oh-so-common film malady: “this misunderstanding could be sorted out with one plain line of dialogue”.

Nevertheless, Man Camp is largely a win for it’s director, writers, and actors.  The exaggerated characters, wild plot, and broad, slightly raunchy comedy evoke movies like Old School and Step Brothers, but – and yes, I actually mean what I am about to say – the script is often wittier than in those high profile movies.  Man Camp was written by Cummings, Kruse, and Josh Long, and there are many lines of dialogue that are strikingly funny (as when Kevin explains his business model of buying alcohol for those who were “simply born too late”. 

The script is aided by terrific performances from the actors in all four central roles. Gardner is the only familiar one, having been a regular on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. Cummings and Kruse have backgrounds in improv and sketch comedy, which serve them well here.  They’re gifted comedians, and they need to be to make the movie’s silliness work. Stocklin’s Kevin has a sweetness that takes the edge off some of the movie’s meaner moments. In Kevin, Alan almost always has a defender and an advocate. While he still lives at home and is the most dependent on his mother, Kevin is, ironically, the brother who sees most clearly that Theresa deserves happiness with Alan.

Man Camp is not a great movie, hampered as it is by hackneyed gendere stereotypes and a saggy final chapter.  But it has such a bright, funny script and features such engaging performances that it makes me eager to see what the talents behind it will do next.