Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The likability fallacy

with 2 comments

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I’m at a point in my life—it’s called “fatherhood”—in which I can see maybe three or four films in theaters every year. My wife and I saw The Hobbit the week before our daughter was born, and since then, our moviegoing has been restricted to a handful of big event movies: Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel, Gravity. In general, my criteria for whether a movie is worth catching on the big screen are fairly simple. It needs to be something that would be considerably reduced on television, which applies particularly to a film like Gravity: I loved it, and I plan to watch it again and again, but its impact won’t be nearly the same at home. Reviews count, as well as my own intangible excitement over a franchise, and beyond that, I tend to go with directors whose work has impressed in the past, which is why I know that the one movie I’ll definitely be seeing next year is Chris Nolan’s Interstellar. In other words, after a lifetime of seeking out strange and challenging movies in theaters, I’ve turned into something like a studio’s idea of the mainstream moviegoer, who tends to prefer known quantities to interesting gambles, and is happy to catch the rest on video. You can complain all you like about Hollywood’s reliance on sequels, remakes, and established properties, but when I look at my own choices as a movie lover with a limited amount of time, I can’t say it’s entirely wrong.

But if there’s a bright side to all this, it’s that it allows me to treat myself as a kind of guinea pig: I can take a hard look at my newfound conservatism as a moviegoer with what remains of my old analytical eye. So much of how Hollywood operates is based on a few basic premises about what audiences want, and as I’ve become less adventurous as a viewer, I’ve gotten a better sense of how accurate those assumptions—presumably based on endless focus group testing and box office analysis—really are. And I’ve come to some surprising conclusions. I’ve found, for instance, that star power alone isn’t enough to get me out of the house: I’m an unabashed Tom Cruise fan, but I still waited for Oblivion to arrive at Redbox. I don’t need a happy ending to feel that I’ve gotten my money’s worth, as long as a darker conclusion is honestly earned. And the one that I can’t repeat often enough is this: I’m not worried about whether I’m going to “like” the characters. Studios are famously concerned about how likable their characters are, and they get nervous about any project in which the lead comes off as unsympathetic. Industry observers tend to think in the same way. As a writer for Time Out recently said of the trailer for The Wolf of Wall Street: “Why should we give a damn about these self-absorbed, money-grubbing Armani-clad cretins and spend our money and time learning about their lives?”

Martin Scorsese

Well, to put it mildly, I can think of a few reasons why, and they’re strong enough that The Wolf of Wall Street is the next, and probably last, movie this year that I expect will get me into theaters. Spending three hours in the company of an Armani-clad cretin seen through the eyes of Martin Scorsese strikes me as a great use of my money and time, and while I can’t speak for the rest of the world, the movie we’ve glimpsed so far looks sensational. Part of this, of course, is because Scorsese has proven himself so capable of engaging us in the lives of unlikable characters. I don’t think there’s a sympathetic face to be seen throughout all of Casino, one of the most compulsively watchable movies of all time, and Scorsese has always seemed more comfortable in the heads of the flawed and unredeemable: it’s the difference between Goodfellas and Kundun, or Raging Bull and Hugo, and even a sleek machine like Cape Fear comes off as an experiment in how thoroughly he can grip us without a likable figure in sight. But there’s a larger principle at work here, too. Scorsese, by consensus, operates at a consistently higher level than any other filmmaker of his generation, and if he’s drawn to such flawed characters, this probably tells us less about him personally than about the fact that his craft is powerful enough to get away with it. Likability wouldn’t be a factor if all movies were this good.

In other words, any fears over the protagonist’s likability are really an admission that something else is going wrong, either in story or execution: the audience doesn’t care about the characters not because they aren’t sympathetic enough, but because it hasn’t been given a reason to be invested on a deeper level. Trying to imbue the hero in a meaningless story with more likable qualities is like changing the drapes while the house is on fire, but unfortunately, it’s often all the studio can understand. As Shane Black notes in the excellent interview collection Tales From the Script:

Movie stars are gonna give you your best ideas, because they’re the opposite of development people. Development people are always saying, “How can the character be more likable?” Meanwhile, the actor’s saying, “I don’t want to be likable.” You know, they give you crazy things like, “I wanna eat spaghetti with my hands.” Crazy’s great. Anything but this sort of likable guy that everyone at the studio insists they should play.

“Make him more likable,” like “raising the stakes,” is a development executive’s dream note: it doesn’t require any knowledge of the craft of storytelling, and you won’t get fired for suggesting it. But let’s not mistake it for anything more. I don’t want my characters to be likable; I want them to be interesting. And if the characters, or the story around them, are interesting enough, it might even get me out of the house.

Written by nevalalee

December 3, 2013 at 9:43 am

2 Responses

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  1. I think the heart of this issue is the extent to which movies are simulation for the audience as opposed to passive entertainment. In the case of superhero, sci-fi and other high concept films in particular, the goal seems to have more to do with turning the protagonist into a kind of virtual reality rig without the goggles than simply telling a story, which explains why there’s such a transparent push to give the viewer a character to inhabit that’s both morally admirable and superficially flattering. I have to admit, I can fall into this trap pretty easily myself, but along with the Scorsese examples you mention, Breaking Bad and Mad Men wouldn’t be possible if we weren’t willing to step out of that comfort zone.

    In any case, I think it says a lot about what we’re collectively looking for when we buy a ticket. Storytelling is definitely a priority, but I think “identity escapism” is even higher on the list.

    Alex Varanese

    December 3, 2013 at 8:16 pm

  2. That’s a good point—although a character doesn’t necessarily need to be likable to provide a form of identity escapism. Otherwise, I wouldn’t spend so much time imagining that I was Don Draper.

    nevalalee

    December 6, 2013 at 3:38 pm


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