The promotional material for Being Canadian, a light-hearted documentary about what it really means to be a Canuck, describes the film as “‘Sherman’s March’ but wearing a toque,” which is an odd description because 1) “Sherman’s March,” while surely a great film, is thirty years old and not so well-remembered that comparisons to it are likely to help sell your movie, 2) this movie is nothing like “Sherman’s March,” and 3) only one person in it wears a toque (spoiler alert/trigger warning: it’s Howie Mandel).
Ostensibly a cross-country travelogue documenting director and veteran sitcom scribe Robert Cohen’s nine-day journey from Nova Scotia to Vancouver in a 2012 Chrysler Town & Country, a trip which will supposedly accord a deeper understanding of his homeland, Being Canadian’s narrative is really just a thin, and increasingly strained, thread on which to hang a ton of celebrity interviews, including Seth Rogen, Mike Myers, Rush, Alex Trebek (wearing an amazing sweater), Cobie Smulders, and Dan Aykroyd, to name just a few. It is an impressive buffet of celebrity poutine.
Cohen poses some Canada-themed questions — why do Canadians apologize so much?; what is Canadian cuisine? — cuts together the best responses, throws in some footage of Mounties or maple syrup or whatever, and strings it all together with a faux-earnest first-person voiceover. It ain’t exactly Ross McElwee, but it is punchy and quick-moving and just entertaining enough. I’m not sure I learned a whole lot about Canada, but I definitely enjoyed Eugene Levy describing low-grade Canadian news broadcasts.
Cohen, a lanky, pasty sort whose wardrobe seems to consist entirely of rumpled t-shirts doesn’t cut much of a presence — he looks exactly like how you would imagine a guy who writes for The Big Bang Theory looks — but his comedy background enables him to draw out the funny from his interviewees. It also helps in a particularly strong section on why so many Canadians dominate comedy. (My favorite theory: the extreme cold induces a cabin fever that is particularly conducive to creating funny ideas.) Unfortunately, Cohen’s sitcom training is also evident in the movie’s forced three-act structure.
No movie can be expected offer a truly definitive view of Canada, but I still found it disappointing that Cohen never touches on Canada’s indigenous peoples. There is a very brief snippet of a woman from one of the First Nations talking about eating fish, but that’s it. Ask an indigenous person why Canadians are so polite, and she might say something that would disturb the movie’s preferred tone of comic aggrievance.
For all Cohen’s pushback against popular stereotypes of Canadians as nice, polite, self-deprecating, and funny, Being Canadian ultimately embodies all of these qualities. This is a movie that doesn’t want to get in your way, would never dream of challenging you, and might even apologize if you get a little bored. And on that level, it works pretty well. Cohen does a good job of keeping things moving and never getting bogged down by over-seriousness. Many of his interviewees seem almost relieved to have the chance to riff about being Canadian with one of their own.
In the end, Cohen concludes that today’s Canada doesn’t need, or even want, the world’s approval, but mostly Being Canadian suggests the opposite, that Canadians are still happy to make Americans laugh while quietly complaining about them behind their backs.
BEING CANADIAN will be available in theaters and On Demand on September 18th