- Flaws add conflict: The hero is his own worst enemy.
- Flaws add motivation: The hero has a big reason to change.
- Flaws generate sympathy: It’s easy to feel for a flawed hero.
- Flaws foster identification: The audience feels flawed and is more likely to identify with flaws than strengths.
I began to despair the state of American independent cinema after sitting through a grueling one-two punch of Greenberg and Big Fan in one weekend. The protagonists of these movies are such overexaggerated screwups they literally can’t do anything right. Even when opportunity is staring them in the face, they are itchy, twitchy, belligerent, and incapable of pursuing their own self-interest. This makes them utterly unconvincing caricatures.
Their behavior is unbelievable, because in real life you can’t screw up all the time and get through your day. More important, such characters just aren’t compelling enough to hold an entire movie. It’s impossible to care about a main character who won’t meet you halfway.
But the writer of Big Fan also wrote a great movie called The Wrestler, which accurately captures the tragedy of the functional screwup: the stand-up guy who’s clever and charming but nevertheless persists in screwing up 5 percent of the time, which is enough to ruin his life. How many decisions do you make in a day? What if every twentieth decision was self-destructive? That’s all it would take, isn’t it? The Wrestler is tragic because Mickey Rourke’s character is screwing up a good thing. The heroes of Greenberg and Big Fan aren’t tragic at all because they’re just screwing up lives that are already hopelessly wretched.
- He shows no hesitation before happily strolling into this wildly dangerous situation.
- We don’t find out a lot about his hopes/fears/questions.
- He seems to be largely un-anxious and downright bemused by his extraordinary journey, except one brief moment of self-doubt at the exact midpoint, but even here, we can see on his face that he’s almost incapable of staying unhappy for more than five seconds.
- He’s not especially vulnerable, physically or emotionally.
- He experiences no gutpunch. No one ever confronts him about any flaws.
As an almost-magical being with the confident ability to happily run circles around his haters, Bart’s most obvious literary antecedent is Bugs Bunny (He does an outright imitation at one point, complete with Bugs’s theme music.) * So why do we like Bugs? Because his opponents are trying to kill him for no reason. He’s an asshole, but all he wants is to be an asshole in peace, and they won’t let him. (By contrast, look at this early Bugs cartoon, in which he actually lures Elmer Fudd in, and we suddenly hate him.) Elmer and Yosemite Sam are rampaging gun-wielding killers (of the nervous and aggressive varieties), but they meet the one guy that can defeat them.
We identify with Bart despite his lack of external and internal weakness, simply because his enemies are so vile, his situation is so desperate (though he doesn’t show it), and his chances for ultimate acceptance is so non-existent.We cannot truly fear for him, but we can still pity him.
And then there’s another issue: he may not betray much anxiety, but it is there in the subtext. We’ll discuss that next time.
*But who was Bugs’s antecedent? Br’er rabbit of course. So now we have a Yoruba legend, transformed into a slave folk tale character, then mass-marketed by a white author writing in a black voice (Joel Chandler Harris), then transformed into a deracialized (but somewhat Jewishized) cartoon character (Bugs Bunny, as voiced by Mel Blank) then turned into a black western hero by a Jewish screenwriter (Andrew Bergman, author of the original screenplay), then transformed again by a black co-screenwriter (Richard Pryor) and black actor that had been brought in to restore some of the original trickster authenticity!
The 40 Year Old Virgin
YES. He’s shy.
YES, the same good instinct that led her to try to maintain quarantine causes her to be blind to Ash’s treachery until it’s almost too late.
YES. Duplicity, contempt, gullibility
YES. Denial of grief, resentment of her son.
YES. He’s too sarcastic and lacks control over his anger.
YES. for each: he’s voyeuristic, creepy, and morally slippery
The Bourne Identity
YES. he’s been dehumanized and snapped like a broken machine.
YES. She’s depressed, broke, and won’t let things go.
YES. he’s become too cold-blooded and apolitical.
YES. Too cold.
YES. He’s so dedicated that he abandons his family and beats up innocent people to preserve his cover.
Do the Right Thing
YES. Shiftless (takes forever on his deliveries, avoids his son and his son’s mother unless he wants sex)
YES. Ultimately the movie flips in the final title card, revealing that her flaw was her self-centered, western urge to tell the truth (which we had perceived to be a strength)
YES. He’s too selfless.
YES. Naivite, haplessness
YES. He’s naïve, about the justice system, about the politics of the medical world, etc.
YES. He’s too much of a passive observer.
YES. Bitterness, passivity, bad predictions of future
How to Train Your Dragon
YES. His flaws are rather small, but he can be naïve and pessimistic.
In a Lonely Place
YES. his hostility cannot be controlled.
YES. He’s arrogant, sleazy, naïve, etc.
YES. She’s vain, she betrays her friend in a quest to be cool.
YES. Criminal tendency, desire to take the easy path, perhaps a secret wish to return to jail. As the brothers say, “Either way we’ll be set for life.”
YES. He’s vainglorious.
YES. We get several flaws, but he doesn’t really struggle to overcome them and the movie struggles with depicting them in a compelling way. When his adultery is revealed, it comes out of left field and we certainly never see him struggling with staying chaste or anything like that. Another possible flaw the movie seems to imply is his reticence to use his army, but the movie never really pulls that trigger, it’s just implied but never openly addressed.
YES. Jack has many flaws. Danny is over-sensitive to evil, and spends the middle of the movie catatonic.
YES. Many: he’s a morose, duplicitous, unfaithful, hostile, and an alcoholic who steals from his mom.
The Silence of the Lambs
YES. She’s too humble, too much in denial about her past.
YES. Naïve and whiny.
YES. he’s easily corruptible and passive.