The first several minutes of Assholes: A Theory, based on the book of the same title by Philosophy professor Aaron James, reveal a good narrative premise and a specific visual style. These are good things for documentaries to have, but unfortunately, the film never moves on from this point. Director John Walker simply recycles openings that establish the premise, again and again. In these subsequent cycles, the film further abandons its distinctive stylistic approach and grinds into a boorish drone shot-talking head rhythm that would work just fine on “Sixty Minutes.”

Assholes: A Theory is about exactly what the title suggests: it ponders the concept of assholes and then explores various questions that arise from deeper explorations of the concept. Such as, are assholes getting more numerous? But the film never goes any deeper than this. In the opening act, Walker—a mild-mannered Canadian whose primary motivation for making the film seems to be that it makes it socially acceptable for him to say, and chortle, the word “assholes” as many times as he wants–visits with James to discuss the latter’s bestselling book.They iron out James’ definition of assholes and discuss complications with the concept, which leads to cuts to other, seemingly random people who also describe the concept of assholes. There are several—too many, probably—clips from current screen culture mixed in as well. Fair enough. The cuts are fast-paced, there is some energy to the whole thing and every now and then big block letters are bounced up on the screen to emphasize something that was said by one of the interviewees, and those look cool.

Once this section has been worked to its full extent, Assholes: A Theory prepares to move into the second act. Only it does not. James is gone and the randos whose interviews were cut into the conversation with James are gone, but the film just repeats the same process with different people, without the bouncing letters or the quick cutting. Walker appears to be applying case studies to prove his opening argument, a common pedagogical or rhetorical tactic. But it’s not a persuasive argument; Walker simply repeats himself, each case study failing to pull the narrative/rhetorical thread farther along.

This could easily be excusable—after all, this documentary is for entertainment, not peer review—if the case studies were interesting or surprising. But they are not, not even a little bit. Walker offers the most obvious strongholds of assholes in North American society: college fraternities, the police, the financial service industry, tech startups and, for some truly unfathomable reason, Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian mogul and right-wing dingbat politician. Compounding the narrative miscue of turning to the most straightforward case studies imaginable is that his subjects aren’t exactly bursting with charisma. Werner Herzog has proven that a documentary without a great subject can be compelling if the people in front of the camera are compelling, but Assholes: A Theory has selected a cast as random, obvious and boring as its examples.

The first act of this film makes a nice documentary short, so simply turn it off once the location shifts from James’ California home to the snowy campus of Cornell University. No one needs to see what comes next: Walker interviews exactly one guy, who tells him how he was excited to join a frat, but then had a shitty experience because all the frat dudes were assholes. It’s neither a surprising revelation nor a very good investigation of the issue, and that’s what the whole film is like.

Neither a surprising revelation nor a very good investigation of the issue.
18 %
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