Being Canadian is a pleasant way to spend 90 minutes of your time, but it isn’t a particularly compelling documentary. It’s shapeless by design, attempting to make sense of the heritage, reputation and history of America’s oft-forgotten neighbor to the North.
Much of the shortcomings are due to the minimal screen presence of director, writer and star Rob Cohen, a TV writer who embarks on a trans-Canadian trek in an effort to understand and explain his homeland to the sorts of Americans who think Canada is nothing more than a frozen tundra filled with polar bears and people who say “eh.”
Cohen seems like a nice enough guy, but he simply doesn’t have the charisma to lead a movie like this. His road trip from Nova Scotia to Vancouver in honor of Canada Day is often painfully awkward, as he simply can’t spout quips or react well enough to sell any of the comedic set pieces shoehorned into his film.
These scripted comic sketches, like one where Cohen goes on a maple syrup binge or one wherein Wayne Gretzky appears in the sky to offer advice (much in the style of God from Monty Python and the Holy Grail), are meant to give the film some sort of shape and structure. Unfortunately, they feel labored—and no good documentary should really feel labored.
I found myself relating to celebrities I’d never much cared about before—Howie Mandel, for example, manages to score roughly the biggest laugh in the entire film.
It’s easy to spot the parts where some creative editing and voiceover narration were substituted for substance in order to make the journey somehow satisfying. It may have been Cohen’s TV writing instincts kicking in, distracting from a documentary, where the narrative needn’t be so straightforward.
Rob seems especially out of his depths in comparison to the dozens of more charismatic Canadian celebrities populating other parts of the film. He’s managed to secure interviews with scores of famous Canadian personalities, which are spliced into the film at random. Everyone from Seth Rogen to Alex Trebek, William Shatner to Cobie Smulders chimes in to address common questions about Canadian stereotypes and history.
Even when their insights aren’t particularly, well, insightful, they’re still affable, friendly and funny enough to entertain with their mere presence. I found myself relating to celebrities I’d never much cared about before—Howie Mandel, for example, manages to score roughly the biggest laugh in the entire film.
I think I know plenty about Canadian culture and history compared to most Americans—certainly compared to the Americans used in this film to illustrate how misunderstood Canada is—which might explain why I didn’t take away too much from the film, except maybe about the existence of a Canadian television classic called Beachcombers (which sounds amazing in its utter blandness). In aiming to confront Canadian stereotypes, Cohen and the other filmmakers mostly just confirm them.
Yes, Canadians are meek and overly polite. Yes, they love hockey. Yes, the weather is cold. No, they don’t have much of a national cuisine outside of Canadian bacon, poutine and maple syrup (their Fort Knox-equivalent is a stronghold of maple syrup). But there’s more! I didn’t necessarily need to watch this film to learn that there’s more to Canada, and I don’t think anyone else needs to either.
With all that said, despite its flaws, Being Canadian is an easy, even comforting watch, if only for the celebrity talking heads and a few worthwhile Canadian history lessons—the way they became a nation almost as an afterthought of the British crown is particularly amusing. It’s nothing if not open and warm and friendly, even if it pales in comparison to documentaries with bigger budgets and greater worldwide acclaim. Remind you of anything?
Being Canadian opens today at the Crest Westwood in Los Angeles and available on VOD.