Highly original, but not entirely satisfying, “Man of the Year” provides a seriocomic look at Dirk Shafer, Playgirl’s 1992 centerfold, using the strategies of both real and mock documentaries. Pleasant to watch and intermittently clever, Outfest closing-night selection may warrant limited theatrical release.
Its commentary on passing, being a media celebrity and sexual politics holds interest for certain audiences, particularly gay viewers. One can only guess what motivated writer-director-star Shafer to opt for a comic-dramatic hybrid that mixes real-life personae, such as he and his sister, with actors who impersonate his parents and the magazine’s editor. Was it a reluctance to expose his life completely, or perhaps the sincere belief that re-creating events in an embellished manner would enhance the wit and irony in a tale of a man who fooled the media for a whole year?
Whatever the case, in November 1991 Shafer, a hunky blond whose photogenic qualities surpass his actual handsomeness, was chosen as Playgirl’s Man of the Year. Low on cash, and apparently still in the process of coming out, Shafer decided to embrace his celeb status fully — at a price. Though close friends and family knew he was gay, his public image forced him to live a double life that caused tension in his evolving relationship with Mike (Michael Ornstein).
The clips selected from Shafer’s talkshow appearances, which included Joan Rivers and Donahue, are all real. “1992 was the year of the talkshows,” says his publicist, Betty (Cynthia Szigel), and indeed, Shafer goes from one show to another, shrewdly anticipating the questions he’d be asked (“What do women want?””Who’s the ideal man?”) and the answers he’d give.
Chronicling Shafer’s place in the sun for a year, pic contains interviews with his parents (Cal Bartlett, Claudette Sutherland), who reconstruct his childhood; close friend Vivian Paxton from Oklahoma; diehard fan Lady La Flame (Rhonda Dolson), who turns on him upon learning he’s gay; and even a cameo by supermodel Fabio, who at the end of the film acceptingly says, “The world is beautiful because it’s colorful.”
Shafer aims high, and the story is by turns comic and tragic (a subplot involves AIDS), but his writing is uneven. In spots, it’s bright and witty, but there are too many cliches that, while true, aren’t sufficiently funny or revelatory. “He never could keep his clothes on,” says his mom; “I told him to get a real job,” notes his dad.
The structure is a bit repetitive, alternating interviews with colorful montages of Shafer (posing in bathing suits, etc.), and too much time is devoted to the segment “Win a Date,” which is shot in black-and-white, with a nod to Claude Lelouch’s “A Man and a Woman” and its famous score. A first-time director , Shafer maintains a fast tempo but keeps the camera too close to his subjects; visually, pic relies heavily on talking heads addressing the audience.