Thursday, April 25, 2013

The Manor opens Hot Docs Festival

The Manor seems like a bit of an odd choice to open the 20th edition of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.

Sure, it's Canadian and a world premiere, but I would have expected the curators to come up with something with a bigger impact to commemorate this milestone year. The Manor touches on several societal issues, but it leaves little lasting impression at the end of its 78 minutes.

The film is based around the dysfunctional Cohen family and its business, a Guelph, Ont. strip joint and low-budget, 32-room hotel that in better days was the home of early 20th century beer barons of the Sleeman family. Thirty-something director Shawney Cohen says (though far from boastfully) at the beginning of the film that his father bought him a lap dance for his 13th birthday and he's been on the fence about the place ever since he was a kid -- even though he's worked as a manager there for years.

The father, Roger, is a cigar-smoking, 400-pound Israeli immigrant who realizes his weight his negatively affecting his health. But instead of dieting or trying to exercise, he opts for stomach reduction surgery (shown briefly in graphic detail) which eventually gets him down to a far from svelte 300 pounds.

But it's hard to lose weight when your wife is constantly pushing large trays of food your way, even though Brenda weighs a mere 85 pounds and finally admits that she has an eating disorder toward the end of the film after her frail body can't withstand a fall and she breaks a hip.

Shawney's younger brother Sammy started working at The Manor right out of high school. He seems to enjoy the lifestyle and invites a stripper to move in with him in his parents' basement -- breaking two of his father's rules: you're not supposed to date staff or non-Jews. Sammy breaks up with her, even though she seems to be the most well-adjusted person on the screen, before the film is over.

Two other non-family members also play supporting roles, and they have their own problems.

Bobby is Roger's assistant and has been in and out of prison all his life. He admits to his boss that he's selling drugs and then he's jailed for assaulting his ex-wife. We learn at the end that the charges were dropped and he was released after a year, but he no longer works at The Manor.

Then there's Susan, the hotel manager who also lives there, who's rushed to hospital after what we're told is either a suicide attempt or drug overdose. Roger clears all of her stuff from her room the next day, but she's allowed to move back in a few weeks later after she recovers.

Roger is very anti-drug and converts the hotel to a halfway house for addicts and homeless people called Sue's Inn Support Centre. Meanwhile, he's shown insulting an overweight peeler that he's watching on a security camera at the club.

Business isn't as good as it used to be, which further stresses Roger and -- although the family seems to live comfortably in a large rural home with a gated driveway and backyard pond -- he refuses to pay for Brenda's counselling once she finally admits she needs help.

Brenda attends one session, but doesn't return for more, citing a lack of funds. Roger admits that he's grown apart from his wife because of The Manor, and Sammy says he resents his old man for treating her "like a piece of shit."

While The Manor is still going, Roger shows Shawney his plans to redevelop it into a condominium complex as the movie nears completion.

The film was shot over two years and, while real life seldom ties plot lines together neatly, The Manor leaves the viewer hanging in too many places without a resolution to any of them. That's the documentary's downfall. It leaves you wanting to know more, but not enough to warrant a sequel.

I wish the Cohens, Bobby and Susan well. They need all the support they can get.

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