Sad Men: how middle-aged male ineptitude became the latest pop culture craze
Male supremacy, if we can believe the signs, is finally losing momentum. Women make up half the North American workforce and earn nearly 60 per cent of all university degrees. Hairy-chested manifestos like Robert Bly’s Iron John have surrendered to Hanna Rosin’s The End of Men and Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In. The traditional indicators of masculinity have been redistributed, leaving a generation of men in a defensive crouch.
Nowhere is this decline more evident than in pop culture. The more our big and small screens fill up with bow-wielding Katniss Everdeens and scandal-squelching Olivia Popes, the more we see a parallel trend toward mansploitation: films and TV shows that gleefully portray (mostly white) guys being degraded and demoralized. The new cohort includes characters like Walter White, Breaking Bad’s cancer-wracked milquetoast who starts a meth empire just to feel alive, and Louis CK’s schlubby sitcom alter ego, who is mostly preoccupied with moping and masturbating. Even superheroes, seemingly the last vestige of chest-puffing machismo, have become as angst ridden as Woody Allen: in last year’s Iron Man 3, Robert Downey Jr. spent more time being beaten up and having panic attacks than he did saving the world.
The Husband, an excellent, caustic new comedy from director Bruce McDonald, takes the depleted state of the cinematic male to new lows. The film is about a Toronto advertising copywriter named Hank, whose schoolteacher wife is in prison for having sex with a 14-year-old student. While she’s off serving her term, he is left alone to raise their infant son. At home, he sleeps on the couch, chugs beer and watches TV. At the office, he endures jibes from glib colleagues. Wherever he is, his mind swarms with visions of his wife and her young lover.
As played by Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, Hank is a pale, unshaven ghost who wanders through life in saggy corduroys and cheap coats that puff up around his emaciated frame. In a scene where Hank hallucinates a confrontation with his teenage nemesis, the boy blithely brags, “I fucked your wife, Hank. I guess that makes me more of a man than you. Or she’s just attracted to immature guys. Either way, it don’t make you look too good.”
For men of a certain age, especially those not blessed with macho swagger or an enduring head of hair—men like myself, say—watching that scene is the cinematic equivalent of a groin-punch. Unlike Hank, I’ve never had to visit a wayward wife in jail, nor do I see teenagers as sexual rivals. Still, the movie felt like an exercise in painful self-recognition.
The mansploitation trend stems from equal parts paranoia and schadenfreude: for viewers in the mid-life-crisis male demographic, it’s a safe outlet that renders their worst nightmares in cartoonish extremes; for everyone else, it’s delicious comeuppance. The Husband has moments of funhouse-mirror surrealism, thanks to the toxic pairing of Hank’s wounded male pride and his tortured imagination, but it’s primarily a work of unvarnished, understated realism—which just enhances the impact of its dude-baiting. It ruthlessly, relentlessly preys on our most pervasive fears: social, professional and sexual obsolescence.
And it never lets up. The Husband teases the viewer—and Hank—with opportunities for redemption, then ruthlessly eviscerates them. On his drive to work one morning, he spots his wife’s teenage lover walking into the AGO, sporting burger-size earphones and a burgundy blazer that marks him as a private school toff. As Hank searches for the boy, dashing up and down staircases and in and out of galleries, the camera lingers on a portrait of Frida Kahlo with the tag line: “She painted to survive.” There’s a flash of hope: maybe Hank will regain his mojo through some creative endeavour like painting, or building a boat, or devising an inspired new marketing campaign. But instead, he takes to drinking alone in his living room, dynamiting his friendships and stalking the boy who haunts his imagination.
Onscreen losers like Hank are usually rewarded for their pains with a blazing catharsis. Walter White transforms into a testosterone-jacked supervillain. In Silver Linings Playbook, Bradley Cooper went off his meds and still got the girl. The Dude from The Big Lebowski, the most iconic loser in modern cinema, emerges from his misadventures a slacker hero, despite having fumbled at every turn. In The Husband, the scenes play out like demented silent film gags, as Hank repeatedly tries, and fails, to reclaim his lost manhood. We don’t get any closure, and neither does the movie’s cuckolded anti-hero, who eventually realizes he’s a dog who won’t ever get his day.
McDonald, known for sporting 10-gallon hats and making iconoclastic cult movies, has a playful and subversive way with middle-aged male archetypes; I’m thinking of Hard Core Logo’s washed-up punk rockers and Pontypool’s aging radio talk jockey. In The Husband, he’s switched up the rules of sad sack cinema. On the one hand, the film is a brilliantly orchestrated farce, full of pregnant pauses, clownish bungles and squirm-inducing mishaps. Yet, as Hank is systematically stripped of his dignity, it starts to feel like torture porn. McDonald roots the story’s humour in its horror, elevating The Husband into a minor classic of cringe comedy.
By the end of the film, Hank lacks any identity beyond emasculated domestic prisoner. The closest thing he has to a male role model is his father-in-law, played to grizzled perfection by Stephen McHattie, who gives him the only advice that ultimately sticks: put up with it all, be a good husband and, most importantly, “don’t be stupid.” That’s about the best a man like Hank can hope for.
Directed by Bruce McDonald
In theatres soon