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We Made a F%$&ing Movie! MacGruber and Unsympathetic Comedic Leads…

The film is a slapstick comedy with a hero who is a nice guy. I thought that wasn’t allowed anymore. He’s a single dad, bringing up his daughter with the help of his mom. He takes his job seriously. He may be chubby, but he’s brave and optimistic.

Roger Ebert on Paul Blart: Mall Cop

I watched MacGruber over the weekend. It was okay – it wasn’t fantastic, and it wasn’t one of the best examples of anything, but if you wanted a shedload of juvenile humour, well… it was right up your street. However, watching the film did get me thinking about just how much of a jerk the title character was. How much of a horrible person can a comedy protagonist be? When did it become the norm for these sorts of characters to be presented with completely irredeemable traits?

Sometimes it's an up-hill struggle to empathise with a protagonist...

It isn’t that MacGruber doesn’t resemble the old-fashioned comedic protagonists. I mean, an inflated sense of self-importance and relatively low intelligence and a whole host of other character traits have long been associated with comedic characters. Most of these characters weren’t even especially nice people or anything, it’s just that they didn’t actually seem like genuinely horrible individuals.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that a comedy lead should be or needs to be a good person. Indeed, I’m relatively open-minded. I certainly don’t subscribe to the patronising philosophy that the audience needs a character to sympathise or emphasise with, but I just find the trend remarkable. Though I do agree with the argument that a character at least needs to be interesting enough to hold the audience’s attention:

Given that movie audiences spend between 90 minutes and three hours in the company of a character or a group of characters, it is essential that these individuals be in some measure likable, or at least interesting, and that they be faced with a problem the public has some interest in seeing solved. This does not always happen. Sometimes the protagonist is so morally flawed or is so personally repellent that the audience cannot sympathise with his plight. Sometimes the character may pass muster but the actor playing him is wrong for the part, or is carrying so much baggage from his personal life that he cannot win the audience’s sympathy. And sometimes – when a perfect storm of cinematic ineptness occurs – both the character and the actor are so flawed, uncharismatic and/or exasperating that the audience finds itself grinding its teeth, wondering if it’s too late to duck out and catch the movie about cuddly rodents. This is what happens when the director does not realise that his protagonist is a creep, that the dilemma he faces is less than compelling, and that his star is so annoying that fist fights may break out among incensed moviegoers. This happens all the time at Madonna movies

While the vast majority of comedies can (sometimes just about) draw enough interest out of their basic premise to render an otherwise revolting character interesting, it can seem like they are working on thin ice at times. I found this to be the case with MacGruber, where I wasn’t really sure that I was interested in watching a cheating, petty, vindictive, homophobic and manipulative lead character navigate his way through a puerile action movie spoof. Although, it has to be said, if you look at the movie as an experiment to see how much you can get away with in that regard, it becomes a whole lot more entertaining.

Sometimes the only way is up...

In the past five years or so, there’s been an increasing trend towards more close-minded and deeply flawed leading characters, to the point where – as Ebert notes above – the genuinely nice lead character has become a notable exception rather than the rule. We can all think of a couple – The 40 Year Old Virgin is perhaps my favourite – but these are somewhat undermined by the abundance of movies populated with a variety of jerks. That said, I suppose a lot of it depends on how you define an unsympathetic character – after all, laziness or ignorance may prove themselves oddly endearing if delivered with the right aplomb. Education and responsibility are increasingly portrayed as vices, while irreverence and non-conformity for their own sakes are virtues. Perhaps this just represents a reflection of the kind of culture we live in, and perhaps these characters aren’t meant to be jerks at all, they just seem that way.

In fairness, the notion of a jerky comedic protagonist has a long line of precedent. BlackAdder as played by Rowan Atkinson is perhaps the most famous example – the scheming, manipulative, not-as-smart-as-he-thinks-but-smarter-than-Baldrick character was always trying to lie and cheat his way to victory, but would never win. In fact, one gets the sense that the fact he was such a unlikeable character was designed to ensure the audience never felt too disappointed when his latest plan backfired spectacularly.

In fact, comedy is, very generally, a series of horrible things that happens to our lead characters, whether physically or emotionally – so it feels somewhat less horrible if we don’t like the character in the first place. In Due Date, for example, Ethan retains audience sympathy because – despite the fact that he is an infuriating traveling companion – Peter is really just a jerk to him. If Peter explained his reasons for disliking Ethan in a more straightforward and polite manner (and was less confrontational and aggressive to others in general), Ethan would seem much less of a sympathetic character and Peter would seem like more of a saint for putting up with him. Similarly, Ethan is a self-absorbed and manipulative character, so Peter can act out on him without us feeling bad about it. The two leads manage to keep themselves in check – neither is so likeable that the other’s action towards them becomes unfair, but none of the pair is so completely unsympathetic that we can empathise with one over the other.

Some protagonists won't be getting a friend request...

Back when it would was less common to have a fundamentally (and irredeemably) flawed lead characters, many movies would skirt the line by offering character development. Indeed, many comedies will feature a character who starts out as something of a jerk, but a jerk who eventually (through the course of the film) learns a lesson in humility. It’s the same sort of pattern we see in Jim Carrey movies like Liar, Liar or Yes Man. Adam Sandler is also fond of this approach, as seen in movies like Billy Madison or Happy Gilmore, where his characters tend become more emotionally balanced and far less petty and vindictive as the movie goes on. That said, it has, of course, been a staple of comedy for far longer.

That said, I am beginning to suspect that the initial level of what could be termed “jerk-ishness” has increased in recent years. For evidence of this, I look to the romantic comedy genre. Traditionally, it has been acceptable for male protagonists in these films to seem closed-off and even confrontational, before the heroine peels back the layers and reveals a true romantic underneath it all. Of course, the most obvious example is Mister D’Arcy from the classic Pride and Prejudice (though it could hardly be described as a romantic comedy). D’Arcy was proud and stubborn – he kept his own counsel and was a slave to the class system at play in Britain. However, these are virtues compared to the types of character flaws that lead male characters come with in these modern romantic comedies.

They are meant to be actually vindictive to the female character – perhaps threatened by her success, perhaps displaying their affection in the way that an eight-year-old does (by essentially pulling pig tails). They are slovenly and lazy, perhaps even bitter and cynical. They are utterly incapable of taking care of themselves. They mock the lead female and her dreams. They might even be a little bit sexist. These are the types of leads that we see in films like The Bounty Hunter or The Ugly Truth. And yet we are somehow expected to believe that any self-respecting well-adjusted woman would be interested in them. Perhaps we’re being asked to believe that girls really do like bad boys – although most of these movies end with the implicit suggestion that the female character has somehow “changed” them for the better. They end up better people just by the fact that they are loved. It’s heartwarming. Or it would be, if it wasn’t depressing.

More recently, the trends seems to have moved away from the idea that characters need to change. Most comedies will feature leads who start out as unsympathetic and remain just as unsympathetic for the complete runtime. Although The Hangover does feature some character development for Stu, Phil is introduced to us stealing from the kids he teaches, lying to his friends and their families and just being an all-around jerk. The movie has great fun subjecting himself and his friends to horrible consequences, but Phil himself doesn’t change much (although, in fairness, the ending does give the impression that he somewhere picked up some lesson about the importance of family, but I’m not sure where).

It’s worth noting that it is possible to make engaging and entertaining movies without sympathetic lead characters. The ones that immediately come to mind are films like There Will Be Blood and The Social Network, although both movies do ask the audience to feel a hint of pity for the lead character – whether or not the audience actually gives it really depends on how harshly they judge the character’s actions, which I suppose brings us back a full circle to MacGruber. I’m not suggesting that the fact the lead character was such a jerk was part of the reason the film didn’t do well, but it’s interesting to note I still find him a lot less likeable than the leads in wither of the two films mentioned above – despite the fact that he’s probably done far less to merit my dislike.

So, I don’t know – I think it’s an interesting trend to watch. What will the default comedy protagonist look like in five years time, or ten? Can they keep making the characters less and less sympathetic? I don’t know. I guess we’ll see.

2 Responses

  1. Well, comedic protaganists started out as the antithesis to action heroes. So, now that the action hero is more and more showing up as a computer geek or a shy teenager, romantic comedy leads must invert. Which is why action stars and/or ‘macho’ actors are going to romantic comedies.

    Which is my theory. That I just made up. Never mind.

    • That is an ingenious theory – I may have to steal it. I just wish Hollywood’s default “shy teenager” or “computer geek” wasn’t Shia La-bloody-Bouef.

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