Wednesday, October 24, 2012
Rulebook Casefile: Motivation and Sympathy in Talladega Nights
In most modern comedies, the main character straddles the dividing line between “laugh with” and “laugh at.” Will Farrell in Talladega Nights is a good example of how to do it right: He’s an outrageously broad character that we can nevertheless (just barely) believe in and care about, with some real world problems (like all empathetic jerk characters, he has a crappy dad) and a satisfying arc.
As part of that arc, the moviemakers bring Farrell from the top of the NASCAR world to rock bottom by the middle of the movie. They could have had his place get eclipsed by any young upstart, but they maximized his motivation with a funnier and more humiliating choice: the instrument of his downfall is a cocky gay Frenchman (played by a very funny Sacha Baron Cohen), fresh off the formula one circuit, who is openly contemptuous of all Farrell stands for.
We like Farrell enough (“laugh with”) that we enjoy seeing him succeed, but we find him so comically insufferable (“laugh at”) that we wouldn’t mind seeing him get knocked down a peg, especially if it takes the form of an ironic punishment for his unexamined bigotries. When he fights Baron Cohen, we’re going to laugh no matter who beats up who.
But this becomes a problem in the second half. After Farrell hits bottom and becomes a better, humbler person, we start genuinely rooting for him …but we still don’t want to see him humiliate the gay Frenchman. Choosing a character that Farrell was bigoted against maximized his motivation, but the fact that he now might have to affirm those bigotries in order to triumph threatens to open up a big sympathy hole.
The movie finds a far-fetched but relatively elegant solution to this problem. Before the last big race, Farrell confronts Baron Cohen in person, and Baron Cohen reveals a secret: He has wanted to retire for some time, but he can’t until he finds someone great enough to beat him fair and square. He had hoped Farrell would be that person, but now he’s lost all respect for him and intends to beat him once and for all.
This is somewhat silly, but it neatly snaps our sympathies back in line. Baron Cohen will still go all out to win this race, but if Farrell wins, then they actually both win, since Baron Cohen gets the retirement with honor that he’s long desired. It shows that the moviemakers knew what they were doing: without that artful cheat, they would have filled a motivation hole by digging themselves a sympathy hole.