The manchild has been a staple of romantic comedy for decades. A man who steadfastly refuses to grow up, he’s either been the object of scorn in films like Failure to Launch and Fever Pitch, or his dedication to avoiding adulthood is something to be celebrated, as in… well, just about every Judd Apatow film.
At first glance French sitcom Beautiful Loser fits the mould perfectly: 31 year old Julien (Sebastien Chassagne) can’t hold down a job, can’t afford his own place, and when he moves back in with his mum he spends all his time playing video games and getting high. But then two things happen: he runs into his ex, Marie (Marie Kauffman), who vanished from his life in their mid-teens and now clearly has her life together. Why did she vanish? That’d be her now teen son Jacques (Theo Fernandez), who Julien has already met – and tried to score drugs from. Who was the father? No prizes for guessing his identity: looks like Julien has some growing up to do.
But that’s where Beautiful Loser starts to diverge – and improve on – the traditional manchild formula. Let’s break it down:
He’s not happy
Often in manchild stories the manchild is proud of what he’s failed to achieve. For him, a life spent getting high and playing video games is a life well spent, and it usually takes most of the movie to make him see the error of his ways – if he ever does. But right from the start Beautiful Loser presents Julien as a man who knows he’s failing at life. It’s not a matter of mocking his choices or making fun of what he likes to do; it’s more that he knows deep down there’s more to life than what he’s getting out of it, and given the chance to change he’s going to go for it.
He doesn’t have a gang of bros
The manchild story is usually built around a group of guys who support each other in their choice to arrest their development. Partly that’s because a lot of these films – the Judd Apatow ones, many Will Ferrell movies, the Hangover series – are based on putting a bunch of comedians together in the one room and letting them riff away until they have enough funny dialogue for the scene. But that’s also because having a manchild on his own makes it pretty obvious that being a manchild is a sad, lonely way to live. Which is a point Beautiful Loser makes loud and clear: Julien’s life living with his mother (Nathalie Cerda) isn’t exactly something anyone would aspire to, and the kind of dead-end jobs he’s applying for aren’t fantasy material either.
His ex is a real person, not a one-dimensional buzzkill
When a manchild movie features a woman, their job is invariably to prevent the male leads from having a good time. The man is living a life of drawn-out youthful excess, and it’s the woman’s job to bring all that crashing down: no wonder Katherine Heigl complained that her role in Knocked Up had cast her as “a killjoy bitch”. And while there’s definitely a touch of that around Julien’s ex Marie, we’re also given plenty of opportunity to see why she’s like this. Being a teenage mother didn’t leave her much time to slack off growing up: she’s had to put all her youthful energy into raising Jacques. She has her own life, with her own desires (including the desire to have some of the fun she feels she missed out on), and Beautiful Loser never sells her short or makes her a shrew.
He wants to change
The traditional manchild movie either has the Peter Pan-esque lead never growing up in any real way, or he reluctantly takes on the burdens of manhood… while keeping the door open for various party hijinks just as soon as the next sequel comes along. But Julien clearly wants to change his life; while discovering he has a son is clearly a shock (and is largely played for laughs), he rapidly decides that he wants to straighten up his act and be a part of his son’s life… even if that begins with them going off together to score from the local drug dealer.
It’s still funny
How can you not laugh at a show where a father and son set up a bucket over an ajar door so when it’s opened it’ll fall on a maths teacher’s head? It’s the combination of broad silliness and the (relatively) serious storyline that makes Beautiful Loser work so well. The relationship between the characters has real emotional depth, which only makes Julien’s occasionally over-the-top antics funnier. He’s doing silly things because he’s trying to deal with something serious: who amongst us can’t identify with that just a little?
Beautiful Loser is streaming now at SBS On Demand.