Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Rulebook Casefile: Motivation and Sympathy in Talladega Nights

Guys like Luke Wilson and Ron Livingstone thought that they would have long healthy careers playing “everyman” roles in comedies, but they rarely work today, because everyman comedies fell out of  fashion. We no longer want our comedic heroes to be the calm at the eye of the storm…we want them to be lightning rods.

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.


j.s. said...

Really? I feel like I'm only able to understand what you're talking about in this post because I haven't seen the movie in a while. Adam McKay is many things, including a successful producer, a skilled talent spotter and a great gag writer, but a talented storyteller? Huh. In almost every one of this films, the story structure, the dramatic arcs, the motivations of his characters are the worst parts, better as examples of what not to do. TALLADEGA NIGHTS is actually worse, on the hole, than the bulk of the deleted scenes for it, which contain some of the funniest and most interesting material he's ever shot.

The "laugh at"/"laugh with" dichotomy deserves to be ellaborated, perhaps in some comedy reformulation of your "badass to vulnerability" ratio or maybe also as a new way to think about the insights of Jerk Week when it's filtered through a comedic context.

I'm thinking in particular of EASTBOUND AND DOWN. Have you made it through all three seasons? The integrity of a character like Kenny Powers can barely survive one season. By the third, I'd kind of stopped caring because all the stuff that was happening just didn't seem to square with who he actually was anymore and I simply stopped watching. It's really, really hard to create a jerk who's ridiculous enough to keep us laughing at him and still sympathetic enough to have us on his side. Casting Will Ferrel or Danny McBride (no wonder they are kindred spirits) in any given role is a big help, but it's not enough.

Larry David's persona on CURB YOUR ENTHUSIASM is probably the comedic jerk who comes the closest to successfully pulling it off for me again and again. And it's largely because, no matter how abrasive or unreasonable he might be, he's usually rebelling against aspects of the larger society that we can all relate to hating and laughing at.

Matt Bird said...

I agree that McKay is maddeningly sloppy with his storytelling, and coasts on the gags, but I'm amazed at his ability to get me to put my mind in storage and just go along with it.

TALLADEGA NIGHTS is the only McKay movie where I actually kind of cared about Farrell's character, which is why I gave it a second look to see how they maintained my sympathy for such a potentially loathsome character.

j.s. said...

I'm more partial to STEP BROTHERS, which, at least for the first half, has the most dramatic potential of and more organic conflict than any of the other films McKay has made. But it's all squandered with a meaningless third act about nothing.