'Welcome to the Men's Group': Film Review
Veteran actors Timothy Bottoms, Stephen Tobolowsky and David Clennon head the cast of this dramedy directed by and co-starring Joseph Culp, the son of actor Robert Culp.
Billy Wilder once said, "A film isn't like a fine wine. It doesn’t get better sitting on a shelf." Nevertheless, there are a few instances when a delay in release can work to a film's advantage. Welcome to the Men's Group, a film directed by and co-starring Joseph Culp, was completed a couple of years ago and made the festival circuit, but found no distributors. Now, however, it is being released during the heart of the #MeToo movement, and it may benefit from this suddenly timely connection. The film is overlong and wildly uneven (just as it was two years ago), but it benefits from a strong cast making the most of some sharp moments exposing the underside of male privilege and domination.
The picture opens with Larry (Timothy Bottoms, 45 years after The Last Picture Show and still looking good) waking up in a spanking new mansion, which seems to suggest that we are entering a world of white male privilege. But it turns out that Larry is facing financial as well as marital problems, and the other seven men who gather for their men’s group also have some significant problems to address. There's some diversity to the group, which includes an Arab member and a Latino (played by Ali Saam and Terence J. Rotolo, respectively), though there are no African-Americans and no gay men involved. (A couple of the men do demonstrate a touch of sexual ambiguity.) One of the men (veteran actor Stephen Tobolowsky) is suicidal because of his financial and marital problems. The newcomer to the group (Mackenzie Astin) lost his job and is now staying at home with his young son while his wife brings in the bucks.
The founder of the group, Michael (played by Culp), leads the group in a chant at the beginning: "We shall take responsibility for the history of men's violence against women." And some of the men, especially Michael himself, do exhibit sexist biases that the film underscores and condemns. Culp, who wrote the script with producer Scott Ben-Yashar, is the son of actor Robert Culp, whose most famous film role was in Paul Mazursky's Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, an obvious forerunner of this movie. That emblematic comedy about encounter groups and sexual experimentation certainly has parallels to this pic, which demonstrates that the earnest soul-searching of the '60s has never entirely vanished.
One big difference, of course, is that Bob & Carol took a compassionate but satirical look at all of that navel-gazing, whereas Men's Group could use some of the same biting comic edge. There are humorous moments in the movie, but much of the time we're asked to view these garrulous, narcissistic characters a little too solemnly. The pict also tends to be static, consisting of lengthy monologues by all the characters. To make these scenes a bit more cinematic, Culp intercuts brief flashback snippets to the events being described. But most of these scenes are fairly literal-minded and unnecessary. In one interlude, as a character boasts about his sexual conquests, the flashback contradicts him by showing a woman falling asleep on their date. The film could have used more ironic touches like this. Brief animated segments that reference Greek mythology also add little.
Although the movie definitely requires patience, it does improve significantly in the final half-hour. A sequence in which the men are pressured into stripping off their clothes saucily counters the majority of American films by presenting a larger dose of male nudity than Hollywood has ever displayed. And this sequence is spiced with humor as well as plentiful flesh.
The sequence that follows this is the most revealing in the film, when Michael is forced to acknowledge his untoward dalliance with Larry’s 19-year-old daughter. Michael has previously confessed to being a "sex addict," but this has been presented as mildly humorous and perfunctory until this more disturbing confession. Culp’s acting in this scene is the highlight of the pic. All the other actors do a fine job as well, and if the writing often fails to make the most of their talents, you may not regret spending time with this band of verbose men struggling to make amends for their gender's bad behavior.
Prodution company: Men's Group Productions
Distributor: Dark Star Pictures
Cast: Timothy Bottoms, Joseph Culp, Stephen Tobolowsky, David Clennon, Mackenzie Astin, Ali Saam, Terence J. Rotolo, Phil Abrams
Director: Joseph Culp
Screenwriter-producers: Scott Ben-Yashar, Joseph Culp
Director of photography: Monty Rowan
Production designer: Spencer Brennan
Costume designer: Jane Mannfolk
Editor: Dan O’Brien
Music: Dan Radlauer