Thursday, January 6, 2011

Likability, The Kids Are All Right, and This Year's Awards Front-Runners

A subject that's addressed when it comes to the awards season and when it comes to movie-goers in general is likability. Not necessarily of the actors, but certainly of the characters. A fond and frustrating memory serves as example: when watching Battlestar Galactica with my mother, she couldn't stand nearly any of the characters because she didn't find them likable. Likability is something that changes from person to person; I, on the other hand, can only say I honestly strongly dislike one major Battlestar character, though I hardly love them all.

The reason this is coming to mind is my very recent (as in just finished about thirty seconds ago) viewing of The Kids Are All Right. Obviously, a lot of good things have been said about it considering its high tomatometer rating on rottentomatoes and its critical support and awards circuit support. However, I went in to watch this without expecting anything too brilliant, though hoping for it. I was honestly still pretty disappointed. It took the entire movie for me to understand why Anette Bening is getting so much attention and, honestly, she deserves it for making a character that could be so easily disliked into probably one of my favorites in the movie (besides the kids because, as the title says, the kids are all right, even though the adults are pretty ridiculous). Jules, on the other hand, while given a valiant effort by Julianne Moore, I simply could not stand. While I didn't appreciate Nic's trashing of composting (living in the rural area of upstate New York, I have composted my entire life as composting means opening the back door and chucking apple cores into the woods or, alternatively, walking about a hundred feet to our designated compost pile). I, however, could not stomach Jules accusations of her gardener being a druggie (and firing him!) and later her knowingly wrongful assertion to Nic that he did blow.

The thing is, obviously, if a character is bad or annoying or frustrating that doesn't make them unlikable. Just look at Daniel Plainview, The Joker, Mark Zuckerberg, hell, even the entire Gossip Girl cast (well, save Jenny and Vanessa in my opinion as they are both incredibly unlikable in my opinion). Bad people make fascinating characters, but it takes a good writer and a good actor to make them worth watching. I'm not a huge fan of either Mark Ruffalo or Julianne Moore, but I'd liked them in films past (i.e. Zodiac and A Single Man, respectively). However, here, whether it's their fault or just plain old bad, melodramatic writing, I couldn't enjoy Jules and Paul. I get it, dysfunctional family, unconventional family, and family values all wrapped into one. Interesting setting, which I enjoyed. However, the actual story and the use of those two characters made me cringe and groan and pull my laptop up to take a break from the movie and browse some websites.

I'm a bit surprised The Kids Are All Right hasn't entered the conversation in this way as I've heard plenty about the likability surrounding the characters of The Social Network and The King's Speech, but that's probably because TSN and TKS are front of the pack for Best Picture while The Kids Are All Right is looking at a nod only. Personally, I'm not sure I'd even give it that. The story just turned me off so much and those two characters, sometimes three, were so unbearable, I couldn't take it.

It's worth noting, however, that there's a difference between bad characters we love and bad characters that are just bad and it's usually because the latter category tries to argue that they are good people. That's not really the case with The Kids Are All Right or with any actually quality story-telling - good character studies try to prove the humanity of their characters rather than defining them as good or bad.

However, somewhere along the way, I just think this study failed. I could see that Jules and Paul were human, flawed but good-intentioned, and yet I couldn't get behind them at all. I didn't want to see anymore of them. I could not have lasted another hour with them.

This is what interests me when I've heard criticisms about The Social Network's characters and how unlikable they are because my very first response after I saw The Social Network was that I could have watched those actors play those characters for hours more. Mark Zuckerberg and Sean Parker were pretty jerky, the Winklevoss twins were hardly nice guys, and Eduardo Saverin was hardly perfect, but I was so fascinated by them and the way they interacted with one another. Mostly, it was thanks to a great (albeit partially fictional, but who really cares about that besides the people whose names were borrowed?) story and great writing.

I'm having a hard time really pinpointing what makes me think The Kids Are All Right failed to entertain or interest me, but I think I'm going to go with the story. The set-up, the concept, the ambiance, the general filmmaking, and the acting (for the most part) was all well-done and enjoyable. But something about the ways in which the characters are portrayed through the story leaves them unflattering in a painful and cringe-worthy way. Simply put, I didn't like it.

But, like I said earlier, likability is all about opinion. While I dislike the characters of The Kids Are All Right but love the characters of The Social Network (and The King's Speech for that matter), not everyone agrees. It's much easier, after all, on paper to adore the middle-aging married couple (because or even if they are lesbians) than a twentysomething billionaire or a British prince. However, that's not how stories work. Stories convince you that even if Mark Zuckerberg is a selfish prick or even if Prince Albert is stuffy and royal these characters are people too and they're human and interesting.

Likability will always play a part. I usually haven't had a real problem with it, since I am first in line to defend unlikable characters as real, but something about these characters, something about this story left me dissatisfied and frustrated.

On a slight ending note tangent, I saw Love and Other Drugs a couple weeks ago now and I was actually originally planning to write a blog post on that, particularly on the likability of Anne Hathaway's character versus Jake Gylenhaal's and how I found the latter to be more likable because how he was written as opposed to the former (and I'd half-jokingly blame that on the male writers - it is hard to write a strong female character, isn't it? and, back on topic, The Kids Are All Right had to write two! AND they had a woman at the other end of the pen, so phooey).

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