Monday, November 5, 2012

Those Unlikable Bachelorettes

The notion of unlikable characters has come up in the discussion of two recently released films. Leslye Headland's Bachelorette and Amiel Courtin-Wilson's Hail share very little in common other than stories focused on some deeply unpleasant individuals. Bachelorette's simplified description as "The Hangover for chicks" or "Mean Bridesmaids" is perhaps too, well, simplified, as writer-director Leslye Headland (adapting her own stage show that was produced before Bridesmaids, thank you very much) navigates a group of young women whose lives have stunted before the final hurdle into true adulthood. Courtin-Wilson's Hail on the other hand looks at the attempts of a recent prisoner to assimilate back into a society that doesn't want him. I liked Bachelorette and actively disliked Hail.

In Bachelorette's case, the character's inherent meanness appears to be a sticking point with many that I have read in reviews and on Twitter. What, I think, made the project work was the distance that I was able to have between the characters played by Kirsten Dunst, Lizzy Caplan, and Isla Fisher. These women (and the men in their peripherals for the most part) do indeed act horribly to one another and others, but they were always just ever so slightly too fantastical to take offense from. And, it must be said, the actors are actually superb. Dunst in particular gives her bitter character enough delicious vocal inflections and bodily ticks to help round out her control freak Regan character as someone damaged and real, but with enough Hollywood polish and sheen to never become too confronting as somebody to spent 90 minutes with. Fisher and Caplan, too, have wonderful moments as coked out buddies whose lives have been derailed and who seek affirmation from strangers.

Hail, however, gives a glimpse into a life that I found all too real and unnecessary. Having grown up in the city of Geelong I have far too much familiarity with the characters being thrust into my retinas ("thrust" being an apt word for Amiel Courtin-Wilson's directorial style here). While the opening passages of Hail follows Daniel P Jones' attempts at societal rehabilitation, it typically descends into ugly thuggery and loud contempt. As unlikable characters go I know who I'd rather spend another 90 minutes with (and not just because Bachelorette has one of the best looking ensembles of the year by the way).

I find the ongoing audience relationship with unlikable characters rather fascinating, actually. It's just a fact that many filmgoers don't want to be confronted with characters that they can't relate to - Oscar voters, it has been said, are the same and frequently respond to more gentle actors and films, and it's also a label Nicole Kidman routinely finds herself stuck with - but while I find relatability is always a great way of making inroads into the heart of a picture (while we're on the subject, think Kristen Wiig in Bridesmaids for an example of that) it's not necessarily the deciding factor that it is for seemingly many others. While I certainly couldn't relate to all that much of Leslye Headland's characters, they each had angles that I found illuminating to the story. They may lack wit, but I certainly laughed at much of the escalating madness around them (and kudos on that fabulous joke about Jack Johnson mere moments into the film). Hail's version of unlikability is something else entirely though. Rather than exposing a world that I am relatively unfamiliar with, as Bachelorette did, I was all too familiar with the world that Hail's characters inhabited and would have preferred a fresher take.

I've seen people like Daniel P Jones and Leanna Campbell more than I care to. I know that probably makes me come across as a particularly uncaring character (hey, I probably do have more in common with "The B Girls" of Bachelorette than I care to admit), but I don't think Hail did anything particularly interesting or unique with the stories of these two people to make experiencing their lives a rewarding expense of my time. If anything, the film is harmful in the way it confirms the stereotype of "Centrelink dole bludgers" who are likely to stab somebody with a screwdriver over a mere driving mishap.

I can't help but picture some of the inner-Melbourne/Sydney suburbanites who will watch Hail and praise its unflinching portrayal of "the real Australia" haven't actually lived near them or come into frequent contact with people like those in the film. I don't need a movie like Hail to show me the disenfranchised, I've seen it with my own eyes so why go to all the effort of going about it all over again? It's become a rather flippant thing to say that "all Aussie films are the same" when that clearly isn't the case. What I do think, however, is that when a local film attempts to tackle this segment of society, filmmakers are rarely able to strike upon a new way of doing so. Hail features one rather stunning sequence of nightmarish sound and image crashing together in a virtuoso moment of power and I wish Courtin-Wilson had infused his movie with more of that sequence's cinematic wonder and less of the lower class miserabilism that surrounds it. I have no doubt that many of the critics that have praised it have done so because it effected them, but cinema like this is nothing if not encouraging of debate.

Cinema is full of examples of contemptible characters being twisted and molded into packages that renders them enjoyable (if, hopefully, not sympathetic). Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, for instance, was never quantified as an unlikable film even though it was populated with Nazis. Christoph Waltz's despicable "Jew hunter" was rendered nigh on fun! It's all about how the film utilises its ugly characters rather than the ugliness itself. Bachelorette, I have no doubt, was a crude and disgusting film for many, but labeling its unlikable characters as a reason for its failing seems to miss the point entirely. I've seen far unlikable characters in a Michael Bay film to be honest. Likewise, I didn't necessarily dislike Hail because of its horrid central characters, but more because the director failed to implant them into a film that I found did anything of any worth with them. If anything, I'd prefer more films like Bachelorette that take messy, prickly people that flies in the face of the Hollywood norm. Bachelorette: B; Hail: D+

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