Jack Rebney is famous for a video of outtakes from a Winnebago commercial filmed in 1989. The obscenity-laden video became a youtube sensation and intrigued Ben Steinbauer enough that he decided to make his first documentary about Jack Rebney, the reluctant star of the video. For twenty years, the video was passed around on VHS tapes until youtube allowed it to be uploaded for the entire world to see. Ben sets out to find Jack, first by tracking down the people involved in making the video only to discover that Jack Rebney hasn't been seen or heard since the making of it.
It should come as no surprise that Ben does find Jack Rebney and he now lives atop a mountain in Northern California. Nearly 80 years old, Jack is an articulate, well-spoken man who seems comfortable living the life of a hermit. In their first meeting, Jack appears to be a kind, old man unconcerned and even humored by the existence of the infamous video. After a week, Jack begins calling Ben and confesses that he put on an act due to the humiliation that came from the release of the video. This is where we get to know the real Jack Rebney, or as much as this documentary will allow.
The film's biggest flaw is that Ben found a remarkable subject in Jack Rebney, yet doesn't seem to take full advantage of that. Jack Rebney is a fascinating individual; highly intelligent, with a soothing, austere voice. He's very opinionated, thoughtful, hilarious, and unafraid to be vulgar. He's a difficult man, but a likable one. He makes it clear several times that he despises no one more than Dick Cheney and that he's working on a book about religion, life, sex, and politics. Jack sees Ben's film as a way to really show his true self, but I don't feel he was given the opportunity to do that. I think that Ben may have been surprised by what an intelligent man Rebney turned out to be and decided to carry out his documentary the way he intended to before meeting Rebney. Ben says that he wants to get to know the real Jack Rebney, but I feel like Ben's intrusiveness led to a retrained view of the real Jack Rebney. Yes, there are things I wish Winnebago Man would've done differently but I must critique a film based on what it is, not what it could be.
It's a quick moving doc that I found instantly amusing and engaging. Ben shows us the Winnebago Man video many times, in addition to examples of other viral videos including the rather sad "Star Wars kid" video, before interviewing people who were directly involved with the Winnebago Man video and people who were just very amused by it. Ben is a film teacher and seems to know the mechanics of making a documentary, but this is his first documentary and some of it is admittedly amateurish. One reviewer commented that we learn more about Ben than we do about Jack. I will say that the excessive use of voice-over and Ben's presence throughout the film do lend to the validity of that statement. But despite several flaws, the documentary has some touching and/or hilarious moments.
When we finally encounter Jack Rebney we learn that he has acute glaucoma and his vision is deteriorating rapidly. It's obvious that this ailment is very hard for Jack, a man who lives by himself and enjoys walking in the woods and reading, but he handles it with such dignified acceptance and calm. Jack is still a crotchety, cantankerous old man who appears easily annoyed by those around him (probably because he feels so much smarter than those around him), but he's much more articulate than that video would have you believe. There's one terrific scene where Ben is filming Jack in front of Wal-Mart when a Wal-Mart manager approaches Jack and tells him to leave, threatening to call the police. Jack, taking it in stride, encourages him to "get the Gestapo." We also meet Keith, Jack's friend of over 30 years, who is quite the amusing fellow himself. The banter between Jack and Keith is so wickedly facetious and clever it almost seems written and the two have a very touching chemistry together that will lead many to question the nature of their friendship as neither man seem to have much interest in women. Finally, one of the film's greatest scenes is when Jack is taken to a film festival that plays the Winnebago Man video to a sold-out audience and witnesses firsthand the effect it has on people and how much those people appreciate the video and the man in it. Hearing the audience's reaction, speaking to the audience, being thanked by members of the audience, and finally posing for pictures and speaking personally with them; you can see what looks like real joy and accomplishment on Jack's face. It's a great moment and one that had me smiling the whole time.
The great tragedy that forms the undercurrent of the entire documentary is that Jack Rebney's legacy will remain as that Winnebago video despite being a much more multi-dimensional man than the video suggests. I find it sincerely tragic that this man with such great intellect and with such an interesting outlook on so many issues will only be remembered for that having a bad day.
Winnebago Man is not a profound documentary, but it is an entertaining, hilariously funny documentary that does shine some light on the remarkable man in these famous videos. I would've loved to get to know Jack more in-depth and hopefully another documentary filmmaker will be inspired to attempt to do so eventually, but for what it's worth...This is an engaging documentary that will enlighten you partially to the fascinating man behind that famous angry demeanor. Do Jack a kindness and check out this film.