Title: What a Man
Director: Matthias Schweighöfer
Starring: Matthias Schweighöfer, Sibel Kekilli, Mavie Hörbiger, Thomas Kretschmann, Elyas M’Barek
The idea of a wacky, modern German relationship comedy may seem at first unfeasible given the dour reputation of its homeland, but that’s just what multi-hyphenate Matthias Schweighöfer’s “What a Man” is. (And yes, in case one was wondering, it does take as the root of its titular inspiration Linda Lyndell’s Stax soul hit, later repurposed to hit effect by Salt N’ Pepa.) An unlikely and winning if utterly formulaic blend of male fretfulness and romantic bloom rooted in friendship, the film serves as further ample proof that some fairy tales of amorous connection have universal appeal.
Schweighöfer stars as Alex Novak, an amiable and domesticated to a fault 30-year-old schoolteacher (“I may be unhappy,” he says, “but I’m orderly”) stuck in a relationship with a ball-busting girlfriend, model Carolin (Mavie Hörbiger), whose considerable shortcomings he is oblivious to. Even when Alex discovers Carolin is cheating on him with their hunky upstairs neighbor, photographer Jens (Thomas Kretschmann), he can’t get mad so much as slink off, defeated.
His buddy Okke (Elyas M’Barek) advises Alex on ways to toughen up his image, and so a fake tattoo, paintball outings, a trip to a dance club and other “manly” activities follow. At the same time, however, having ceded their shared apartment to Carolin, Alex holes up with longtime female friend Nele (Sibel Kekilli). As she selflessly if foolishly taps other friends of hers to help bolster Alex’s spirits and shore up his confidence, the two individually start to wonder if there may be a dormant, yet-to-be-ignited spark between them. As they dance around that maypole of possibility, various hijinks and social faux pas ensue.
Schweighöfer is a popular star in Germany, and that profile affords and informs the sort of sweet-natured tone omnipresent in “What a Man,” which is from a script co-written with Doron Wisotzky. The plot is fairly telegraphed (old friends realizing they may have amorous feelings for one another!), and its complications fairly pat (a French cad paramour for Nele, a last-ditch attempt at reconciliation by Carolin), but the movie more or less hits the whimsical target at which it is aiming through a confluence of quirky technique and slightly heightened supporting performances that allow Schweighöfer and Kekilli’s playful, easy chemistry to convey a certain sense of rootedness by way of contrast.
Flashbacks to Alex and Nele’s adolescence contribute to the fanciful tone, and part of the former is also expressed through the leitmotif of its title song, which isn’t played once but is instead used repeatedly, kind of as part of an ironic call-and-response pegged to Schweighöfer’s flailings and uncertainty. The more substantive movie would have delved down further into Alex’s anxieties about modern masculinity, and his own perceived shortcomings. “What a Man,” though, is a light and fluffy cinematic bon bon that aims for amusing diversion, and in this regard it succeeds.
Written by: Brent Simon