Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Mike's Musings: Character Tropes it's Time to Retire

Writing a screenplay is hard.  I speak from experience.  Not only do you have to write dialogue that sounds interesting (or at least realistic), you have to develop characters almost entirely through it, tell an interesting story and keep it within about 90 to 120 pages.  If that sounds challenging, it makes you respect the work of Quentin Tarantino or David Mamet more.

Naturally, Hollywood, who despises risk, relies on shortcuts to make it easier.  It's not that writing a good script can't be done ("Manchester by the Sea," "Kalifornia" and "The Man from Elysian Fields" come to mind), it's that Hollywood doesn't want to put in the extra effort to do it.  So they use stock characters and archetypes to earn audience interest.  Instead of, you know, creating actual people.

Many of these are the "everyman," which is to say, a stand-in for us.  But to provide color, many lazy or self-indulgent filmmakers will use these tropes.  They may have been quirky and interesting when we first saw them, but they have long since become annoying.

It's important to know that I'm not writing them off entirely.  With a great script and good acting, many of these can be unique and interesting individuals (in fact, some of them have been).  What I'm criticizing is using them as a crutch.  To better illustrate what I mean, I'll provide a few examples for each.

The "Disaffected, Existential Yuppie:"

Example: Any mumblecore movie, "It Follows," any indie movie with Greta Gerwig, "What If"

This character shows up in a lot of indie movies that want to be hip and cool, but really aren't either.  He/she is so emotionally distant and self-absorbed that whether they're bitten by love or pursued by a serial killer, they're too elitist and sophisticated to care.  Imagine the worst stereotypes of Millenials or Gen-Xers times a hundred, and you'll know what I mean.

The "Too Macho to Express Himself" Guy:

Example: Det. Elliot Stabler on "Law and Order: SVU," any modern dramatic role from Woody Harrelson, any male character on "The Walking Dead"

This is the go-to dramatic crutch to create depth in a male character.  This is the guy who is blunt and evasive in order to avoid talking about how he really feels.  In addition to being insufferably irritating, it draws out the cliché to long past where it's interesting and simply wastes our time.  To be fair, it has been used with good effect in movies such as "The Messenger" (starring Woody Harrelson).  But that was because he was confronting a situation that was actually difficult and had a fully developed personality.  We understood why he was the way he was, and also how this mentality nearly destroyed him.  What's really annoying is that there are people like this in real life.  And they make you want to punch them in the face all the same.

The "Deadpan, Anti-Social Misfit Defined by Random Details"

Examples: Any Wes Anderson movie (and I mean any), "Gigantic," "Juno," "The Brothers Bloom"

Woe betide any filmmaker that uses this cliché and comes across my path.  Words cannot express how much I hate these types of characters.  In addition to being cliché and unbelievably annoying, it's an example of the filmmakers simultaneously being lazy and trying too hard.  Quirky characters with interesting personalities and worldviews are fine.  But when they define logic and normal human behavior, it's insulting.  For example, in "Gigantic," Paul Dano's character is obsessed with adopting a Chinese baby girl.  It has been his lifelong passion.  Or in "The Brothers Bloom," Rachel Weisz's character "collects hobbies."  Juno's mom is allergic to "dog spit."  In what world do people like this exist?  Nowhere.  They're the constructs of a desperate writer who hasn't the slightest clue of what he's doing.  Character comes from motivation, point of view, and experience.  It does not come by mixing and matching illogical eccentricities that have zero basis in reality.  That they are usually, but not always, played in a deadpan monotone makes them all the more worthy of ending up in front of a mad slasher.

The "Pot-Smoking, Bro-Code Obsessed, 30-Year Old Man-Child"

Examples: anything with Seth Rogen, "How I Met Your Mother," any Judd Apatow or Adam Sandler comedy

You didn't think I'd write this article without taking another jab at Seth Rogen, did you?  As much as I hate the fat ginger with glasses, he's far from the only offender.  He just ruined it through overexposure and ego.  The guy (or) girl in a state of arrested development is not a new thing.  It's a feeling that we all have at one point or another.  It's part of growing up.  Filmmakers have used this for dramatic ("Manchester by the Sea") or hilarious ("Ted") purposes.  To make it work, you have to have to have actual characters (see above).  But use that as an excuse just to smoke pot, try and have sex and act like a giant boob is the equivalent of making your audience watch "2 Girls 1 Cup" live for an eternity.

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