Popular German film and television star Matthias Schweighofer has chosen an awfully safe vehicle to headline and helm in “What a Man,” a by-the-numbers romantic comedy in which naive nice-guy Alex Novak (Schweighofer) deals with virility issues and surmounts contrived obstacles to his predestined couplehood with nice-gal Nele (Sibel Kekilli). The leads jell well but the film overcompensates to justify their union, surrounding them with broadly drawn secondary characters presented in an uncertain, inconsistent comic tone. A 2011 hit in Deutschland, this brightly lit, well-mounted, superficially slick Fox Intl. release seems unlikely to translate in Stateside play.
As an actor, Schweighofer has retained a certain boyish, personable quality (like an older, more conventionally handsome version of Michael Cera), and he and the lovely, sometimes soulful, Kekilli sparkle plenty together. So as director/co-scripter, Schweighofer need not have stacked the deck so relentlessly to make the couple seem sympathetic. Alex, in particular, is saddled with problems that repetitively announce themselves in brief nightmare sequences and traumatic childhood flashbacks — fear of flying, fear of gym pommel horses and, most pertinently, fear of a dearth of manfulness.
Enough to challenge anyone’s masculinity is Alex’s unfaithful girlfriend, Carolin (Mavie Hoerbiger, in a skillful comic turn), a self-starved advertising model whose eating disorders include a reckless tendency to bolt toward buffet tables at parties, knocking over the elderly. When Alex discovers Carolin’s infidelity (in a hospital emergency room, as her sexual exertions have apparently caused internal bruising), he appears willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. His basic good-heartedness is mirrored by one of the little kids he teaches, a near-lookalike who winds up hospitalized after reaching from a balcony to pluck a flower for a pretty classmate.
The problem with “What a Man” lies not in its use of grossout caricature, but in its generally straightforward, evenly applied visual style, which never distinguishes between satire and naturalism. The movie swerves between over-the-top stereotypes and heartfelt sincerity throughout, with off-and-on effectiveness. From her later-discovered closetful of jumbo dildos to her obligatory humble-pie scene with a demystified Alex, Carolin is assigned so many negative attributes that the technique almost backfires.
Among the other key players are Alex’s pal Okke (Elyas M’Barek), who appoints himself Alex’s guide to man up, prescribing boxing, hip-hop and weightlifting; and the notorious, wild-eyed Volker, aka V (excellent character actor Milan Peschel), who barks “power training” advice at an all-male forest retreat with selected trees shaped to resemble erect phalluses.