The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck Review: Doesn’t Give a #@$%!
Jan 17, 2023
It’s pretty safe to say that a lot of the success from Mark Manson’s best-selling book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a #@%! hails from the way that the author subverted what readers are used to finding in self-help books. While you’ll often read in these books that you have to seize the day, follow your dreams, and cherish every moment, Manson’s book simply levels with the reader and reminds us that we’re a speck of dust in the universe and our very existence is random, so you can’t possibly give a fuck about everything that people say you should. Seven years and 8 million copies sold later, Manson gears up to do the seemingly impossible: Transform a “not-self-help” book into a life-lesson documentary. Considering what the book has accomplished, it’s pretty surprising that the documentary falls short of communicating such a powerful message. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a #@%! gets presented in the most basic format, and feels like a random National Geographic documentary.
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Not that Manson’s philosophy reinvents the wheel: The nihilist way of seeing life is pretty common, even though it’s not as popular as the alternative. The philosophy was even the subject of one of 2022’s best movies, Everything Everywhere All At Once. And while it’s clear that The Subtle Art of Not Giving a #@%! certainly didn’t have the same budget to be as wacky as the Michelle Yeoh adventure, the movie featured a simple element that the documentary severely lacks: Debate.
About 85% of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a #@%! is author Mark Manson talking to the camera about his life experience and how he learned to not give many fucks about things that surround him. That’s great, especially coming from the author himself. However, Manson and director Nathan Price ignore the basic premise of a documentary, which is to do a deep dive and bring a nuanced conversation about a subject to its viewers. During its entire runtime, the documentary doesn’t invite to the conversation people who could really contribute, such as psychologists, anthropologists, historians, and others. It ends up feeling like one of the world’s longest TED Talks — interesting, sure, but not exactly what you thought you were signing up for.
Image via Universal Pictures
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And while you could argue that The Subtle Art of Not Giving a #@%! subverts the very medium it’s using by not adhering to its rules — as the book did — this seems like a bad way to do it. The scene that best exemplifies this is the documentary’s very last: Manson suggests that the audience should do a death-defying stunt only to later reveal he did it with a safety net that was later removed digitally. This moment has a “gotcha” feel that the documentary severely lacks, and a bit of humor that is also nowhere to be seen or felt through the rest of it.
Another problem of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a #@%! is expressed in the structure of this very review: Just check how many paragraphs it took me to finally talk about the film’s message. And while no one could argue that Manson doesn’t have a point, the author spends quite a bit of time stating the obvious: Instagram is not reflective of real life, you don’t need to buy things to feel whole, money doesn’t equal happiness, etc. Manson ignores that everybody knows this in some capacity, especially people whose morals are guided by religion.
At the same time, the documentary spends next to no time dissecting how capitalism plays a huge part in messing up people’s mental health by putting a price tag on every human experience. Even if we do know that buying things and achieving certain positions do not necessarily mean we’ll be happy, we can’t pretend that we’re not bombarded with these types of messages 24/7, and that has an effect on the way we live and make plans. Capitalism and propaganda are as much part of life as breathing and sleeping, and that doesn’t only concern superficial things. If you want your family to have quality health care, for example, you do need more money. So briefly mentioning capitalism as a footnote in the conversation is weird at best.
Image via Universal Pictures
Another hard-to-buy moment of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a #@%! is the part in which Manson suggests that going through terrible experiences can be a way to shape an individual to learn about not giving so many fucks. While this can certainly be true to some extent, it touches on the documentary’s running problem of generalization and lack of depth. It’s not hard to find people who’d rather not go through trauma to learn a lesson, the same way that you can find other individuals who survived horrible situations that taught them things they already knew — or worse, nothing at all.
By putting best-selling author Mark Manson front and center (quite literally) and presenting his philosophy with no other inputs from other professionals, or even personal takes from other individuals, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a #@%! comes off as a lecture that doesn’t really give a fuck about how Manson’s worldview and experiences can find a footing in other realities different from his. How many of us can drop everything and visit 30+ countries? What about the people who can face very real consequences if they suddenly decide to not give a fuck? Manson’s message is not invalid: We do have to take many things less seriously, and we do need to shift priorities when it comes to consumerism. The problem is, the documentary doesn’t seem interested in expanding the conversation, and getting to the roots of modern society’s issues.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a #@%! is out now in limited release.
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