VIFF Review: ‘Assholes: A Theory’ is a disappointment

Everyone knows one. A friend or acquaintance you tolerate because of a shared history or friend circle. He’s an asshole, but he’s your asshole. But why is he such an asshole?

Assholes: A Theory wants to explore this segment of society. Why are people Assholes? How are they assholes? Can we distinguish different kinds of assholes? What kind of behaviour is asshole behaviour? What can we do about it?

A documentary with such a strong setup could be equal parts fascinating and hilarious. Unfortunately, this is not that documentary, as while there are a few laughs and a few interesting examinations, the film peters out before it starts to hit the meat of the problem.

The film starts with an examination of what an asshole is. There are many talking heads giving your take, but the best definition comes from Aaron James, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, who penned the book from which this documentary takes both its inspiration and its title.

”Allows himself to enjoy special advantages in social relations out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunizes him against the complaints of other people.”

It’s such a complete definition that I can’t imagine another one. The first third of the film examines the behaviours of the asshole and what constitutes being an asshole (a favourite thought: if someone admits they’re an asshole, are they really?).

The second act of the film moves on to some case studies, including a woman cop harassed by her colleagues and a long look at what happens when an asshole is elected to lead a country (spoiler alert: the film doesn’t talk about our neighbour to the south, which is refreshing).

On the one hand, all of this is interesting, but on the other, the film loses some focus. By the time the third act rolls around, the film hasn’t exactly forgotten about the questions posed above but also doesn’t really offer much in the way of resolution, either.

There are some fun talking heads to listen to (not the least of which is John Cleese), but Assholes: A Theory is a bit of a disappointment at the end of the day.


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