What does it mean to be Canadian? Aside from the geographically obvious, the question doesn’t evoke an immediate and clear answer that can be articulated. It’s like when Morpheus asks Neo “What is real?” in The Matrix. This question also apparently haunted sitcom writer Rob Cohen, as he embarked on a coast-to-coast quest to define his home country.
The film begins by exploiting one of the stereotypical character traits of the Canadians: being funny. Being Canadian is only a semi-serious sociological investigation into decoding the mystique of Canada, and since director Cohen’s day job is as a sitcom writer, producer and director, that should hardily be surprising. For talking head segments, he gathers a myriad of Canadian-born comedians universally recognized as some of the funniest people in the business. It’s a who’s who of who’s funny from Canada including Dan Aykroyd, Martin Short, Seth Rogen, Will Arnett, Catherine O’Hara, Michael J. Fox and Mike Myers.
The set-up for Being Canadian is simple. Cohen sets himself the task of driving west from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Vancouver, British Columbia in just nine days with the intent of arriving on the West Coast in time for Canada Day (which is July 1, in case you don’t know). As we see Cohen drive to various Canadian landmarks, his voiceover muses about the various questions of Canadian identity that he’s considered since leaving Calgary for Los Angeles. The director intercuts those segments with streeters of ordinary people and interviews with celebrity friends and well-wishers. Obviously, Being Canadian does not break the mold when in comes to the documentary format.
I’ll concede that I don’t think that Cohen intended to break any new ground for either his theme or the medium he decided to explore it in. There’s an analytical part of your mind that makes you wonder if time might be better spent on exploring the idea of Canadian identity by talking to more sociologists or historians, although the film does occasionally defer to one certified cultural expert and an actual former Canadian prime minister. Being Canadian is not for the logical part of your brain, but it would be a lie to say that there’s nothing intellectually provocative about the film, either. I give Cohen credit for being irreverent, without being brainless.
One of the best gags in Being Canadian sees Cohen visit a psychologist under the thinly veiled guise of being the submissive younger sibling, Canada, of an overbearing and overachieving brother, the United States. It may be some passive aggressive America bashing, but Canadian viewers who’ve travelled overseas can relate to the way that so much of being Canadian is defined by not being an American. It’s hard to deny the seemingly eternal link between the two countries, and the psychiatrist bit was a more interesting way to do it than saying, “Isn’t it weird how we call Calgary the ‘Canadian Denver’ or Toronto the ‘Canadian New York’?”
Another sequence sees Cohen visit an expert in etiquette, a means by which he tries to understand the reputation of Canada as a country of exceptionally polite people. That gag was somewhat less successful. Or maybe, to put it another way, it was trying too hard. Just as Cohen interviewing former Kid in the Hall Dave Foley shirtless in bed was trying too hard. I also could have done without the requisite nods to hockey, The Beachcombers, and “a-boot,” but I realize that if you’re talking about Canadians, you have to at least nod at those things.
Watching the film as a Canadian, what I did appreciate was the way that Cohen highlighted often overlooked portions of Canadian culture and lore. He visits the commissioner of the Canadian Football League in Toronto and dives into the mystery of why the CFL had two teams called the “Rough Riders.” (Don’t worry, it doesn’t take very long to explain.) His stop over in Quebec also includes a history lesson at the Plains of Abraham, the decisive battle of the Seven Years War when Britain took control of the colonies of New France, thus launching the proto-Canada. Still, I must also admit a chuckle when Cohen receives a vision of Wayne Gretzky as he exhaustively reaches the end of the journey.
For a comedic look at what makes Canada different, and what makes Canada great, Being Canadian does a fairly decent job of delivering entertainment. You get the sense that Cohen had a great time on his cross-country trip and if the entertainment of the principle character manages to translate through on screen, than watching the trip unfold as an observer is pretty worthwhile. You also have to appreciate the universality of the message that Cohen decides is the moral of his little film: stop caring about what others think and live life for your own enjoyment and purpose, so long as you find happiness. Clichéd? Sure, but it’s a message that can apply to people as well as countries.
Being Canadian is a fun and humorous examination of what it means to be Canadian, even if it's sometimes wrapped up in its own cleverness.