I was watching the popular cancer film 50/50 on a plane recently and although I enjoyed it, it struck me as being the perfect example of a film resorting to clichéd characters as a catalyst for plot developments, and in doing so, selling itself short.
The film is based on the screenwriter Will Reiser’s real life experience with a rare form of cancer and stars Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the 27 year old radio producer facing his own mortality.
Seth Rogen stars as the “smart talking best friend” (essentially a souped up version of himself) who uses Levitt’s illness as a way ploy for pity sex and Bryce Dallas Howard as the “evil partner the protagonist won’t end up with.”
Lets call this character “EPTPWEUW” or “Evil Partner” for short. These two characters both have integral roles to play in illustrating the very different reactions people have to finding out a loved one is suffering from a life threatening illness. They have important and poignant emotional beats to cover, and Rogen’s character is used to his full potential, showing a variety of emotions and coping mechanisms, but Howard’s character is nothing but a unbelievable caricature full of spite and malice.
I understand it is important for the witty yet sensitive best friend to come good in the end, but the “Evil Partner” is a lazy cinematic trope, normally sleeping with someone else, as well as generally not understanding them, and the main problem I have with it is this:
The protagonist (or person the protagonist will end up with, the object of there affection’s evil partner as it were) can’t be that wonderful if they haven’t noticed what a hideous person their partner is to begin with.Why don’t they notice they have nothing in common until they’re at a dinner party with their extended family and they argue with their partner about the educational future of their non existent children, or when they’re doing that thing they always dreamt about doing, and a quick search of the crowd reveals their partner is no where to be seen or is giving some blonde a amorous glance instead of paying attention?
Movie-land is riddled with this tired cliché. For example Ed Helms’ character in The Hangover has a cruel wife, and we are meant to root for him rather then think he has mother issues and secretly enjoys being a subordinate.
Drew Barrymore’s character in The Wedding Singer has a slimy chest rug of a man fiancé and we are meant to think she is sweet and naive rather than a unobservant doormat.
In Old School they lazily insert a scene in which Luke Wilson catches the fiancé of his childhood sweetheart touching the face of a maid in the bathroom and we are meant to see him as this knight in shining armour, and not her as having poor judgement. I could do go… in fact you can probably insert twelve of these yourself.
Why can’t the Evil Partner and the Protagonist (or Protagonists object of affection) be getting on okay, but come to the conclusion that it wasn’t meant to be and then part amicably? Why do people in Hollywood films have such crap relationships?
A scene comes to mind from You’ve Got Mail
.It is not the greatest film, but it takes the cliché and spins it on its head. Small bookshop owner Meg Ryan is dating Greg Kinnear, and they get on but it is made clear that it is no big romance.
About halfway through the movie there is a scene where they turn to each other and admit they do not love each other, before a highly amicable break up. There is something about that scene I find oddly touching and bittersweet, like admitting you caught that show everyone is raving about and you didn’t think it was the greatest thing ever in the world ever and you didn’t even finish watching past the third episode, and you were on your phone for most of it anyway.
One of the worst offenders, and I hate to say this, was Midnight in Paris.
This was an otherwise brilliant film but it resorted to the lazy “my evil partner doesn’t get me” cliché in the most unsubtle way and frankly Mr Allen should know better. Rachel McAdams plays the spoilt wife to Owen Wilson’s troubled writer who put him and his dreams down throughout as well as openly flirting with Michael Sheen.This would be fine other then the fact she was made out to be SO terrible and SO self involved it left you wondering why they were even together in the first place, let alone engaged on holiday in Paris. I would quite like it if these stereotypes and people as plot devices were approached or at least explored in different ways, because although clichés are rooted in truth it can bring out the worst kind of sexism.
It is the kind of sexism that assumes the female audience for Cosmopolitan all have the same brain. In the movie world the evil partner, if male, tends to be a “jocky,” successful guy who thinks with his penis and the women tends to be a money grabbing slut who gets away with stuff by being sexually manipulative. The sexually manipulative part means she only touches the protagonist’s genitalia to distract him from her faults or stop him breaking up with her.