Being Canadian Mockumentary is Cheap but Hysterical

Directed by Robert Cohen
Grainey Pictures, 89 minutes, Not rated
★★★ ½

Premise: People in the United States know nothing about Canada. Concept: Make a comic film that riffs off their ignorance and Canadians' confusion over their own identity. Rob Cohen was the right man for the job. If the name doesn't ring immediate bells, check out the writing credits for some of your favorite TV comedies such as The Ben Stiller Show, Big Bang Theory, and The Simpsons. These are just a handful of the shows for which he has contributed his wit.

The humor in Being Canadian is broad and cheap, but it's also wickedly funny. Early in the film actor Russell Peters complains that Canadians are so invisible that Americans are shocked when one of "their" cultural icons identifies as Canuck. Cohen aims his camera at an effusion of Canadian-born celebrities, including: Will Arnett, Dan Aykroyd, The Barenaked Ladies, Michael J. Fox, Eugene Levy, Howie Mandel, Alanis Morrissette, Mike Myers, Catherine O' Hara, Seth Rogen, Rush, Paul Shaffer, William Shatner, and Alex Trebek.

The film opens with an animated quiz designed to prove that outsiders don't know anything about Canada. I actually knew the answer for all of the questions, but I'm hardly typical south of the border stock in this regard. Cohen punctuates the film with interviews with non-Canadians and I sincerely hope the American bubbleheads in the film were plants, or the US of A is in deep polar bear doo-doo. Cohen's thin-as-a-Vegas G-string plot is a road trip from Nova Scotia to British Columbia in nine days, timing his arrival to partake of Canada Day festivities in Vancouver. Along the way he hopes to uncover the Canadian identity. That's actually a joke within a joke given the rivers of ink depleted by Canadian writers on the very subject. Cohen's tone is absurdist and insouciant. For example, his journey across Quebec treads gently on separatist sentiment, but goes long on an unsolved heist of $18 million worth of maple syrup from a provincial warehouse. The entire journey is Michael Moore by way of Saturday Night Live: a series of set-up questions followed by mock interviews, a few serious remarks, some shtick, and Cohen chewing up screen time. Among the questions he poses are explorations of why Canadians are so nice, why they have an inferiority complex, and why their comedians are funnier than those born in the States.

There is great hilarity in explorations of the lameness of Canadian TV, with The Beachcombers serving as corroborating evidence. "It's our Gunsmoke," notes Jason Priestly, in the midst of a parade of commentators expressing incredulity that anything that woeful could have aired for twenty years. I've never seen it, but the clips made Petticoat Junction look like Shakespeare. Cohen also pokes fun at Canadian food, concluding there's no such thing, and marvels that Canada's national sport, curling, is even lamer than The Beachcombers. There's also the delicious insight that "nice" Canadians are obsessed by ice hockey, a sport in which grown men pummel each other. Niceness is again lampooned when Cohen visits a charm specialist and asks her how she'd question a mistaken $300 hotel surcharge for porno movies and booze. Predictably, it begins with, "I'm sorry, but could you please…." In another segment, Howie Mandel goes faux nuclear on toques.

There are numerous cheesy segments, not the least of which is the ongoing gag of Cohen and Dave Foley lying side-by-side in bed—seemingly naked—and musing on all things Canadian. Once was funny, but really…. Of course, Cohen didn't actually make the trip in nine days—unless you believe there was a massive July 1 snowstorm/freeze in Ottawa that roused skaters and skiers from their summer dens. This is, of course, a riff on outsider views that all of Canada is a frozen wasteland. The cartoon apparition of Wayne Gretzky certainly won't make Terry Gilliam quake in competitive fear and the film's "discovery" at the end is saccharine and foreordained. Cohen is almost misty-eyed upon passing through his native Calgary, but he also implies that "passing through" is necessary for an aspirational Canadian. Cohen leaves unexamined the fact that he now lives in LA and that most of the celebs he interviews are longtime friends and fellow exiles. 

But then, again, maybe I'm taking this too seriously. Being Canadian is really a mockumentary posing as a documentary. Much of it is laugh-out-loud funny. Does that fuel the stereotype of self-deprecating Canadians? Perhaps, but I'm happy to have Canada as my neighbor and am puce with envy of the civility and rationality of daily life there. And, yeah, most Canadian comedians are funnier than those in the States. The beer and folk music are better as well.  

Rob Weir

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