Man Camp: Dude, Where’s My Father? by Tyler Smith
Nate Bakke’s Man Camp contains many comedic elements that I thoroughly enjoy, and some that I do not. This story of three grown men in various states of arrested development coming to terms with the loss of their father contains strong relational humor, while also falling back on oafish comedy that too often stumbles into slapstick. Thankfully, in the end, a committed cast and a solid undercurrent of pathos elevate the film, effectively preventing it from becoming too broad.
The film involves three brothers celebrating the life and outsized personality of their father, gone too soon from cancer. In remembrance of the father’s rugged masculinity, they go up to a mountain cabin to engage in a lot of beer-drinkin’, log-splittin’, and fish-catchin’. This is a yearly tradition called “Man Camp”. The oldest brother, Adam (Daniel Cummings), is seemingly the most sensible one, having settled down with a wife and son, unlike sensitive nerd Kevin (Erik Stocklin) and brash wild card Tim (Scott Kruse). As they arrive at the cabin, they discover their mother (Tammy Kaitz) in the midst of a love tryst with her milquetoast boyfriend, Alan (Pete Gardner, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend). Astonished that their mother would even think of being with another man, the brothers hatch a scheme to scare Alan away, playing elaborate pranks on the well-meaning older man. Much to their surprise, however, Alan is more resilient than he first appears, testing their resolve with his chipper attitude and desire to bond.
At first glance, this material might seem tonally at odds with itself. The outlandish pranks the brothers pull on Alan range from juvenile to downright murderous. With each successive gag, the proceedings get sillier and sillier until it seems the film is about to throw up its hands and just declare itself a Chuck Jones cartoon. But just when it feels like the film has gone too far, Nate Bakke reels it back in and reminds us that at the core of the brothers’ shenanigans is a deep well of pain; a grief that may never have been adequately acknowledged.
It is in these moments that the film really excels. The actors are able to modulate their performances accordingly, veering between over-the-top histrionics and a more quiet, childlike refusal to accept a difficult situation. And while the climax of the film – featuring a too-obvious third act crisis – is a bit lackluster, the commitment of the performers carries us through.
While Cummings, Kruse, and Stocklin have a nice chemistry, special mention must be made of Pete Gardner. He has the difficult task of playing Alan first as the oblivious dork that the three brothers assume he is, while still making the character believable enough that, when he eventually emerges as a real person with feelings and opinions, the transition isn’t too jarring. Like the film itself, he accomplishes this by establishing small moments of real humanity in the midst of the silliness and then wisely not fully abandoning the more outlandish aspects of the character when the tonal shift occurs. It’s a nicely-layered performance and winds up being the true heart of the film.
In the end, Man Camp remains an imperfect film that is still able to entertain and delight. While it is sometimes in danger of tipping fully into a meaningless stream of gags, the director – with the help of an energetic cast – reminds the audience of what is really at play here: an aggressive goofiness embraced by characters who stubbornly refuse to face the sad realities of life. Underneath the madcap hijinks is a tragedy, which the film doesn’t shy away from. The film is a worthwhile endeavor precisely because the filmmakers treat their characters, and the audience, with more respect that one might expect from a standard dudebro comedy.
*Disclaimer: This film was co-written by Battleship Pretension contributor Josh Long