It's not every calendar year that an actor gets two titles as diverse as "First Time Filmmaker" and "Hollywood's Hottest Bachelor" but that's just what Joe Manganiello has accomplished in 2014. His male stripper documentary La Bare premiered at Slamdance this past January and hit theaters just as the final season of True Blood was kicking off. Good timing and you have to hand it to him. I mean this in the nicest possible way but actors of limited range who understand both their niche and the unique window of time they have to make some sort of substantial showbiz mark and then maximize it deserve a loud round of applause. Well done.
With La Bare, Manganiello manages to make a career move behind the camera that's also a not-at-all subtle reminder of his hunky allure in front of it. 'Oh yeah, he was in Magic Mike!' All of which slyly serves to remind us that there's more to him than werewolf Alcides ...and he's willing to show it.
Supposedly he originally intended for this documentary to be a reality series about the dancers at America's most popular male strip joint La Bare in Texas. Somehow the series morphed into a stand alone documentary which is fairly entertaining if a little unfocused, unintentionally evasive (the interviews raise so many questions that the movie doesn't even think to ask) and marred by a poor sound mix. Unless you're going for in-the-club versimilitude, why is the soundtrack so freaking loud and busy while the performers are just doing their talking head bits? We want to hear them.
But most moviegoers, including me I'm embarrassed to say, don't focus on filmmaking quality while they're watching docs as often as they do with narrative features. In most cases they're there based on the topic because it interests them. That's why a bad Holocaust doc will always have a better shot at a Oscar than a great stripper doc; subject matter trumps execution, a sad truth.
Conventional talking head docs rise and fall on the quality of the subjects being interviewed and Manganiello chooses pretty well. The featured dancers aren't diverse in race or body type (which is a pity) but there's plenty of variation in personality with one unifying pleasure: they're all guileless in front of the camera, willing to be dumb, funny, nerdy, shy, vain, or any other instantly understood and broadly watchable adjective beyond "sexy" that you'd be happy to spend more time with any of them. This is even true of the two most initially obnoxious dancers. The relentlessly self-promoting "Master Blaster" is the McConaughey to this Magic Mike crowd, their elder statesment who trains them at his gym and still dances well past the normal sell-by date - he claims to hold the Guiness World Record for longest run as a male stripper and we even see him at the plastic surgeon's office getting filler. On the opposite side of the age spectrum is "Channing" a cocky 18 year-old stripper who is the Pettyfer to this Magic Mike crowd, and yes Manganiello is shameless about making those connections. Channing was an oft shirtless High School show-off who fell hard for Magic Mike when it came out ('That's what I want to be!') and even named himself after its leading man.
La Bare gets really distracted towards its final act with a long depressing subplot about a charismatic dancer who was murdered but it's at its best when it's concentrating on a truly unique working environment. An "amateur night" sequence is one of the film's most entertaining segments and also telling as to what it actually takes to be a successful dancer. The doc is most successful whenever it explores the current dancers feelings about the money, the strange work hours, the women who obsess over them, and the workload (one really choice bit has a dancer complaining about how easy female strippers have it 'They don't have to learn any choreography. They just have to show their big tits').
It's kind of a pity that the reality series didn't happen. La Bare is not a great documentary but the "cast" sure is entertaining.
MVP: Tough call and basically a draw but I'd maybe go with a mohawked former military man who is terrible at telling stories even though he has an interesting one.
Oscar Chances: They'd have to beef off the murder subplot and war veteran story ;)