When you think about the best romantic comedies and their countries of origin there a few clear names at the top of the list. Hollywood, of course, has seen its fair share of gems (including High Fidelity and When Harry Met Sally) even if their level of quality has been replaced in the last decade by a morass of Katherine Heigl and Kate Hudson-led stinkers. The UK has several great ones but earns a spot based on the near perfection of Love Actually alone. Similarly, France would make the list based solely on Amelie although they too have many more fantastic examples as well. Even South Korea, traditionally viewed as home only to movies about revenge, has produced more than a few solid entries in the genre including Finding Mr. Destiny, Spellbound and My Sassy Girl.
But what about Germany?
It’s okay if you laughed at the absurdity… I did too, but then I watched Matthias Schweighöfer’s What a Man and discovered that not even the German language could detract from a smart, funny, sweet and well-acted romantic comedy.
“All the cows shall be fucked!”
Alex (Matthias Schweighöfer) is an unassuming school teacher three years into a relationship with his girlfriend Caro (Mavie Hörbiger). So what if she can be incredibly rude to Alex and strangers alike, she’s a beautiful, petite blonde and he loves her? Then one day he gets called to the hospital after she’s apparently taken a tumble down the stairs, but the doctor meets Alex in the hallway to suggest they should be more careful during sex.
Then he hands Alex a rectal spreader for “next time.”
It seems Caro has been cheating with their beefcake neighbor, Jens (Thomas Kretschmann), and when Alex asks her about it she berates him for not acting more like a man and boots him out of the apartment. He finds solace in his two best friends, Okke (Elyas M’Barek) and Nele (Sibel Kekilli), who help him in competing ways. Okke offers ways for Alex to man up, whether it be through a change of fashion or a manly game of paintball, while Nele gives him a place to stay and a woman’s perspective on it all.
Romantic comedy conventions know no geographic boundaries, and some of them creep their way into this film like any other. Race to the airport? Check. Third act return of the cheating lover? Check. Three’s Company-like misunderstanding? Check. But one of the movie’s strengths is the script from star/director/co-writer Schweighöfer and Doron Wisotzky that takes these conventions and alternately tweaks them or turns them completely on end. It’s not flashy about it, and in fact more than one such twist of convention is teased and resisted in a matter of seconds, but the story is allowed instead to simply play out without guarantees.
One of the biggest and usually most obvious conventions is that of the best friend turned love interest who was right there the whole time just pining away… and, well, Nele fits that description on the surface, but her existence doesn’t hang on Alex seeing her that way. She has her own relationship and she’s mostly happy with it, so she has no designs on snagging Alex. Because of the setup, the romance here is allowed to come out naturally as a revelation to the two of them as well as to the viewers.
Schweighöfer’s triple duty on the film shows his strengths in all three areas. His performance is charming and personable, but it’s his script and directing chops that show a real affection for the story and characters. What a Man is grounded in reality (as much as any rom-com can be), but brief flashbacks to Alex and Nele as children offer a dreamlike glimpse at emotions untethered by the gravity of the real world.
Plus, while the film finds humor in the expected places, the cast is equally adept at finding the heart. Schweighöfer and Kekilli have a warm and energetic chemistry that makes their characters’ lifelong platonic friendship believable. It makes their eventual physical connection equally viable with both performers showing (and hiding when necessary) the raw spark of attraction and joy towards each other.
What a Man is a fine addition to the romantic comedy genre that more often than not deftly sidesteps the usual pitfalls. It’s frequently funny and gets all the beats, both expected and unexpected, just right. Don’t let the terribly unattractive German language dissuade you from giving the film a chance.
The Upside: Dodges several typical rom-com conventions; laugh out loud funny at times; sweetly romantic
The Downside: A few conventions seep through
On the Side: This is my first exposure to a German romantic comedy, and I would be grateful to any readers who could recommend others that I’ve obviously missed.
What a Man opens Friday in limited theatrical release.