Connecting to Movies… A ‘Character’ Study

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What a pretty ass explosion…
Photo: Warner Bros.Pictures

When I started writing about movies way back in 2003 I didn’t know shit. I looked at films on a surface level only. I had always loved movies, but I loved them for how big the explosions were and how cool the effects were… that is… for the most part.

Sure, I looked a little deeper into The Matrix (thought it was cool), thought the fake eyelash was cool after A Clockwork Orange and I am not at all ashamed to admit I love Titanic as a love story, but when it comes down to it I went to the theater for the more special effects driven “cool” flicks. To me, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor was a reason to buy a ticket. Marie Antoinette was not. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was a reason to buy a ticket. In Bruges was not. Movies cost a shit ton of money to go see now, why would I ever consider spending $11 on a movie I could wait and see on DVD unless there was some sort of a effects driven wow factor? At least, that’s how I used to look at it, and blockbusters still excite me today, but I am not as blind as I once was.

Turns out I love In Bruges and Marie Antoinette and don’t care if I ever see Indy 4 or The Mummy 3 ever again. I’m glad I saw them all in theaters (In Bruges twice). Action spectacles deserve the big screen at all times. If I hadn’t seen Incredible Hulk on the big screen and waited for DVD I would have been pissed. Love that movie or hate it, it is big, loud and mean on the big screen. Recently I haven’t been able to find a ton of joy in the majority of the films I have seen and I have been wondering Why?

I have been handing out horrible reviews for movies released in 2008. Sure, I have given out three “A+” grades to The Dark Knight, WALL•E and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. Those, however, seem to be the exception as I have also given out 24 grades in the “C” range, 18 in the “D” range and four “F” grades already. In 2007 I handed out an “F” twice and only one in 2006. Looking back at it those four “F’s” are entirely deserved and a few of my “D’s” could easily move into that category.

Why such bad grades though? Have I turned into those pompous, cynical critics people always slam for not liking something if it isn’t an Oscar potential feature? I don’t think that is the case, but I do think I am finally starting to look for more in the films I see. One such aspect I have really started to key in on is that of character connection.

My thoughts finally came together on all of this with the comments on my recent article about The Graduate in which we are having a pretty good character study conversation right here. I will leave that one alone in this article, but I do have two films to talk about, films that recently struck me as stand outs in this specific character driven criticism.

Step Brothers and Swing Vote are two terrible films. They are downright awful, but they didn’t have to be. It’s not like the stories they told are anything all that bad and it isn’t as if they didn’t have capable people working on them. The biggest key for both of them is that they didn’t offer anyone for the audience to connect with. This was my biggest fear going into Step Brothers, but surprised me with Swing Vote.

Two idiots try and figure out which one is a bigger idiot
Photo: Sony Pictures

First for Step Brothers, a film centered on two degenerate 39-year-olds still living at home with their parents and acting like 5-year-olds. The trailers told us this was to be expected and I was prepared for it. I knew I would not connect with these characters and I knew the only way for this film to even be remotely entertaining was to offer something in the way of a connection for the audience as we watch the bumbling boobs do their thing. The problem, of course, was that we never got it.

There is no way we are going to connect with the douche bags played by Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, at least unless you are severely handicapped and in that case you probably don’t know what is going on. So that is out the window. Sure, you can feel sorry for them, but that only goes so far and this is a comedy, not a tragedy. On top of that these two idiots never do anything to earn your sympathy.

You can’t connect with the parents since they are both enablers that show no sign of really urging their kids to better their lives. The father, played by Richard Jenkins, is damn near loony himself. You could say his son Dale (Reilly) did that to him, but it doesn’t make me connect with him. Then you have Dale’s brother and sister-in-law. The brother (Adam Scott) is a complete ass hole and the sister-in-law is obviously mentally disturbed. Considering these are the key characters there is no one left for the audience to connect with. We are left to sit back and watch the morons do moronic things.

Don’t tell me you don’t need to always connect with the characters in a film to actually enjoy it. That is not true. There is always a connection, one way or another. It is the reason you laugh, get scared or cry. Characters you love get into danger and you get worried. Characters you hate are going to get killed and you get anxious. There is a bump in the darkness and you get scared, not because of the bump, but because of the character walking around in the darkness. What would you do in the darkness? What would you do against your mortal enemy? What would you do with your 39-year-old socially disabled son that was still living at home and rubbing his testicles on someone else’s drum set?

I’ll let that last question simmer for a bit. I wouldn’t want to rush you into any rash decisions.

Bud finally realizes he is an idiot and has been dragging down this entire movie.
Photo: Touchstone Pictures

This brings us to Swing Vote. I didn’t expect to enjoy Swing Vote all that much either, but for different reasons than I ultimately came out with. I assumed this was going to be a simple story made cute thanks to a quirky father-daughter relationship in which she taught him the ropes and he ultimately got his head in the game. What I didn’t expect was a drunk simpleton played by Kevin Costner channeling Roy McAvoy making mistake after mistake while his daughter and everyone else in the film watched as he fell further and further into destruction.

Costner’s character, Bud Johnson, in Swing Vote was a dumb, drunk degenerate. He has no job and shouldn’t have custody of his whiz-kid daughter. I am neither a drunk nor an idiot so I didn’t connect with Costner in this one. However, I don’t think I was meant to, even though he is the focus of the film. I think the majority of the audience was meant to connect with Molly, Bud’s daughter. Molly is bright and I believe smarter than everyone in this film (even the candidates). We see her on a consistent basis taking care of her father by waking him up in the morning out of his hangovers, driving him home drunk from the bar and educating him on politics. Here is our beacon of hope for a connection to this film.

However, Bud’s problems are not only Molly’s, they are now ours. The audience is now connected with Molly; she is going to get us through the travesty that is Bud Johnson. There may be a few whimsical things here and there, such as the first time we see her wake up Bud in the morning. He rolls over asking for his blankets back and we deal with the cliché moment because we expect it. We do not expect to see it several more times after that, but that’s exactly what we get.

This film is built on redundancy as Molly must continually wake Bud up out of drunken stupors. She must put up with him letting her down. She must learn how to deal with the people she trusted as they also let her down. And we must then find out her mother is a goddamn wreck of a woman that doesn’t even want her. Yeah, it’s a roller coaster no one wants to be on, and to believe it is to assume that this is the life of everyone living in trailer parks in small towns around the US. And through Molly we are connected to every wretched moment of it.

Fortunately, the payoff is that Bud wears a suit at the end and admits he is in idiot.

What? Did I just miss something? After taking us through the dark trenches of white trash America this is the thanks we get?

Swing Vote didn’t even have the balls to tell us who Bud ultimately voted for as it tried to walk the fence the entire way. It didn’t even have the balls to actually come out and say Bud was a drunk. I will though, because he was. This film should have started with Child Protective Services carting off Molly to the adoption agency just as Bud won the lottery and spent it all on kegs and Ho-Hos as he went on a three year drinking and eating binge ultimately ending with him as the World of Warcraft master champion. I have no idea if such a thing exists, but it would have made a lot more sense considering what we were working with here.

It seems to me many movies are forgetting their audience and just trying to make things explode or disturbingly gross for laughs or thrills. We have a new mega feature every weekend and the opening weekend push will determine if they can create trailers to wow the audience just enough to get them in the seats for that opening weekend box-office take. Don’t get me wrong, I love the box-office numbers, there are not many social experiments as interesting as seeing how many people can be duped into seeing Meet the Spartans in one weekend or how few will actually turn out to see The X-Files: I Want to Believe.

Movies are a social experiment, and sooner or later I hope we get back to seeing more films that connect with the audiences and give us reason to feel, as opposed to TV trailers that dazzle the eye and promise what turns out to be empty optimism.

Will audiences ever learn? That is the real question, because if they do the studios are going to have to actually start reading scripts and not just talking to special effects houses and balancing the budget accordingly. Character connection will once again become important and filmmakers will realize just what they are connecting us to. Hopefully it won’t be a 12-year-old girl taking care of her drunk father in the #1 father-daughter, political vs. media light hearted comedy of the Summer.

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Weekend: Sep. 20, 2018, Sep. 23, 2018

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