The first time I saw this movie was in theaters back in 1997, so I was 9 1/2 years old. I remember liking it but forgetting about it until we got it on VHS. From that point on it was a sure fire laugh.
As a kid you don’t fully get all of the sexual references but you laugh because Jim Carrey is so happy and goofy. As an adult I’ve come to realize how 21st century the whole family dynamic was (divorced-wife is sleeping with a man she’s been dating for 9 months and the divorced-husband sleeps with his boss for a promotion). And somehow I’m okay with the dynamic (I guess it’s okay because they’ve been separated for 9 months!).
One of the reasons why I popped this movie back into the DVD player tonight was to challenge my belief that movies where characters start as despicable and learn to become decent humans for the sake of a “character arc” don’t work, or at the very least are very dangerous.
You see, I’ve seen too many films where the protagonist is a complete dick for most of the movie and “learns to be better.” And that somehow justifies sitting around for half a movie watching the protagonist do shitty things to good people. I’m always shocked when people walk out of the experience really liking the character and being able to laugh it all off (in comedies) or simply accept it (in dramas) for the sake of the story.
Two movies in particular were extremely uncomfortable to sit through because the filmmakers chose to make the protagonist despicable on the outset. The first was Groundhog Day and the second was Bridesmaid. In Bill Murray’s classic, Bill is jaded and mean to those around him and does it with the full intention of hurting their feelings or at least seeing how far he can go. His subordinates just take it because he’s the star. But by the end of the movie he learns to be nice so it’s all okay. Right? Well not for me. In Bridesmaid, Kristen Whig is a complete asshole to her family and friends and gets some sense smacked into her when she hits rock bottom only. Then she changes in the last act and all is good.
Unfortunately, they both dug their heels in for so long that I lost all empathy for their characters and got frustrated with the whole experience.
But I understand why the filmmakers felt the need to go that route. After all we’ve all had it hammered into our heads that our protagonist needs a character arc. They need to change. So they need to start with a flaw and change for the better. And the larger the change the better! Unfortunately I feel that often times this leads to making the lead character pretty despicable. And if I feel the characters are awful human beings I have no interest on taking a two hour journey with them. Furthermore I have no interest in seeing them get rewarded at the end of the film. And I’m not alone! Most studios would agree on this. They’re always trying to make their protagonists more likable, often times to the detriment of the story and common sense.
That said, I’ve surprised myself at how many movies I like where the protagonist is deeply flawed yet I still manage to empathize with them. Liar Liar is one of those films. Here we have a lead who lies for a living, lies to his ex-wife, and accidentally lies to his kid because he prioritizes his career over his kid. All of that is pretty lousy, but I still love him almost immediately. Why? (And it’s not because I’m a huge Jim Carrey fan; it was probably the first Jim Carrey film I’d ever seen, and it’s still one of a few I can actually tolerate him in).
The way Liar Liar solved this was by first painting him as unreliable but still a loving father and someone who brought joy anywhere he went. Someone who made people happy. Furthermore, the character WAS happy. He wasn’t miserable like Bill Murray in Groundhog Day or Kristen Whig in Bridesmaid. It wasn’t until the adults started to converse and we started to see his work life that we saw how shady he actually was. But you could still see that he had a good heart and wanted to see his family be happy. And when he was a scoundrel and slept with the boss instead of going to the birthday party, he made us laugh. Furthermore, it was almost like he didn’t want to but he couldn’t help himself. And every time he would call home he seemed to genuinely be apologizing.
So I started out liking him and therefore he had to do a lot to make me unlike him. Plus, in this particular movie, it felt like most of the conflict with him and his son came from him never being around which isn’t something done intentionally to malign our hurt someone.
- Make me like him first. If he is noble or trying to do good or does something good first, then when he does bad, I’ll think twice.
- Make me laugh. Comedy is the best way to get away with despicable actions but you have to play it right. The character has to truly believe that his actions will help him win and the audience has to know what he’s trying to win. For example, if the lead is trying to win the heart of his fiancee’s parents, it’s okay that he lied and spray painted the cat’s tail black (Meet the Parents). Plus, it’s a fine line because if your audience doesn’t find the actor funny, then comedy can’t cover up despicable characters. On the other hand, get a good actor that everyone finds funny and you can get away with almost anything if it makes the audience laugh.
- Make me smile. The easiest way to do this is if the character being despicable is smiling. Smiling is infectious. It’s hard to hate someone who smiles unless it comes off a not genuine.
- Don’t make him mean-spirited. If people do mean things intentionally that goes a long way toward making them unsympathetic. On the other hand, if the reasons they do mean things are unintentional (like being unreliable, late, or self-centered) there is still hope for empathy.
- Make me empathize with him first. Often times movies will wrong the lead profoundly so he’s justified in any other action he takes. For example, many revenge films will start with the lead’s family getting killed. In comedies, you might have the lead in an awful desk job or in miserable working conditions. In high school films, the nerd/underdog will get picked on for no reason.
- Let them believe in what they’re doing. In Wedding Crashers, our heroes start the movie as full-on players who enjoy themselves and their life style. They’re not conflicted about it in anyway. It’s only when Owen Wilson falls in love that he begins to change. If the leads hated themselves or their lifes (Groundhog Day, Bridesmaid), it’s no longer fun or funny, it’s tragic.
List of movies where the lead is a jackass and it did NOT work for me:
- Groundhog Day. Jesus, for the whole first day, he’s absolutely despicable. Mean and demeaning to everyone around him. If it wasn’t Bill Murray, nobody would like this movie. In fact, you have to actively be a Bill Murray fan to like this film, but I’m not because as an actor he has no passion. He doesn’t care for anything in the scene or anyone. His lack of enthusiasm lowers the stakes of the entire film. Plus, he always comes off like a snarky prick.
- Bridesmaid. Similar to Bill Murray’s lack of passion, Kristen Wig doesn’t seem to care about anything or anyone in the whole film. It was hard to find a redeeming grace about her character (or her acting) until it was fed to us at the end.
- Hook. Dear God, for at least half of the movie he’s an unhappy miserable up-tight lawyer who blows off his kids recitals and ball games. He tries to get to the games, but it’s pretty clear that the kids really resent him. They’re not disappointed, they hate him. If other characters in the movie say bad things or hate the lead, the audience must assume they’re right until proven wrong. Of course by the end he learns his lessons, but it’s far too late for me. Fortunately, Spielberg magical touch made everyone else around him bearable. If people didn’t love Robin Williams walking in, it would have been a hard movie to swallow.
- Close Encounters of the Third Kind. This character is so self-centered and obsessive that he doesn’t even try to fix things with his family or go back to help him. By the end of the film he decides to leave the planet. There’s a reason why many heroes are orphans: because leaving your family for a self-centered selfish quest is unacceptable in most societies.
List of movies I love where others argue the lead is a jerk and it still works in my mind (and my reasons why I feel it still works).
- Toy Story. Woody spends most of the movie trying to eliminate Buzz and break his spirit completely. Yeah, I can see this. In fact, watching the behind-the-scenes of Toy Story, the filmmakers even saw this at one stage of the film. Woody was bitter and a complete mean-spirited asshole. And the movie was falling flat and uncomfortable. The way they fixed it was making him empathetic in the beginning (he was the leader, the father figure for the group) and when Buzz shows up you really feel that his sense of purpose is lost. You spent the first ten minutes falling in love with the concept and characters and understood where he came from and his struggle to get back his role and we somehow empathizes with him. And I think they rerecorded the dialogue to make his less mean.
- Galaxy Quest. Jason Nesmith was a self-centered ego-maniac who was oblivious to his crew’s plights and disdain for him. He had to learn to be less self-absorbed. The film opens with the crew really annoyed at how late he and complaining how he booked a gig without them. When he shows up he’s like there’s nothing wrong with him being late. And they almost all leave because of it. I can see how people who hate egos would really hate him, but I found it funny because everyone else was unnecessarily bitter toward him. He on the other hand was enjoying life, walking in happy, trying to cheer up the group and when it came to the convention, he loved the fans and knew every line from his TV show and spoke with his fans with love and knew how to entertain them. Then it was random haters who broke his spirits and we really felt his loss of identity. Then when he became commander of the ship, he went back to his crew to bring them along. He learned his lesson in a matter of two scenes and spent the whole movie proving that he had changed, not actually changing! In fact, it was everyone around him who were changing. Jason was becoming the hero he played on screen.
- Happy Gilmore. God, he’s awful and violent: he attacked kids with his blades in hockey and shot nails into his boss’s head. But something about the opening scene was so charming and funny that we felt for him before we could hate him. The video made it feel like he’s just a big kid not a bully. Plus empathy was built when we learn that he grow up without parents and instead lived with his hilarious and loving old grandmother. And when it came time for motivation for his journey into golf, it was to save grandma’s house. A noble cause.
In these films where others argue the protagonist underwent a character arc from bad to good, I feel that the change was one aspect of their character and not their entire character. Often times a small chance is enough and most reasonable and most realistic in films.
I’ve also noted many films where the characters don’t change significantly and often times the films work just fine. Forrest Gump is one example. So is Armageddon, Speed, Broken Arrow, Mission Impossible, Indiana Jones 1… in fact, most good action heroes don’t change. They are action heroes because they had all the skills necessary to win at the outset of the picture.
In fact, many pictures DON’T have the leads change. Instead, they grow not from bad to good, but from good to mature. Examples include: Scream, Halloween, Terminator. Though these are all action/horror and seem like good to hero changes, not character arcs. They learn skills, not character.
In romantic comedies, it seems like characters often change or grow and mature. Like in high school films, often kids will start out with infatuations and learn how to love. In adult rom-coms, often one or more of the characters has to change to open himself or herself up to love. They must commit or take a chance or whatever.
In hidden-identity rom coms, like Wedding Crashers, You’ve Got Mail, or others, you usually get the change as the film progresses and the revealed identity breaks the trust which must then be re-earned.
On a related note, I’ll caution you about creating the despicable lead character for the sake of being the protagonist–a character whose action causes ALL of the conflict / plot in the film. If things happen to your character by chance, it’s not a story, it’s a dream. If instead your characters take action which force other things to happen which couldn’t or wouldn’t have happened unless they DID something, then your lead is a protagonist.
In Spielberg’s self-written classic, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, the protagonist puts his own desires first and tears apart his family because of his obsession with the aliens. Furthermore he always makes things worse for all those around him. And by the end of the movie, he doesn’t even change (He leaves his family and the planet to board the space ship! What a selfish dick.) But at least he’s the protagonist in that his actions cause all of the conflict in the film. Every action he takes leads to the next scene and causes the next scene to happen. He’s always taking action and not letting things happen to him. So yes, he’s the protagonist, but a despicable one and one who doesn’t care enough about his family and marriage to actually communicate with them. His lack of communication make him look like a psycho, especially when he destroys his house to get to the mountain top.