The other night, I saw The Last Days of Disco for the first time. It’s a Whit Stillman film, which means it’s built on trenchant, bittersweet insights into the paranoia of young professionals who are trying to figure out what it means to be independent adults even as they struggle with their desire to continue defining themselves as members of exclusive groups (e.g., Harvard grads, ad execs, etc.). It’s a good movie, but what caught my eye was Kate Beckinsale’s performance as Charlotte, a grating, self-absorbed young woman who keeps her friend Alice (Chloe Sevigny) in check by saying things like, “Maybe in physical terms I’m a little cuter than you, but you should be much more popular than I am.” Alice is one of several main characters, and while hers is one of the bigger arcs, it’s still very much an ensemble piece, which means characters like Charlotte are integral to the narrative. And Charlotte’s a fantastically realized, expertly drawn, convincingly acted pain in the ass. She has to be. Her character is that of a confused, jealous, insecure post-grad (admittedly a somewhat redundant phrase), and what’s more, the story isn’t about her coming to terms with those failings or growing in some small way as a person. Things happen to her, but she doesn’t reinvent herself. That’s not what she’s here to do. I was struck not only by the acuity of the performance, but the bravery required to accurately write and perform it. Roles like that are thankless.
They’re also plentiful, though, in large part because of what we expect from film narrative. A protagonist is going to progress through a series of internal changes as a result of external action, and that arc can be heightened by placing it next to someone who stays relatively flat. And not just flat, either, but still kind of aggressive and annoying and what we’d think of the as the “before” picture. When these characters are treated as real people — complex, screwed up, naturally self-interested people, just like everyone else — then a film has the potential to rise to a higher level of art and observation. It’s so easy to want to make these people villains, or at least villainous, but it’s infinitely more rewarding to watch a movie where they act like real people that you might know.
Writing, directing, and performing roles like this anything but easy. Written too broadly, these characters become mean jokes or cheap caricatures that you just want to see squashed. Wobbly direction can make them feel insignificant or detrimental. The acting requires total commitment to the idea that everybody is the hero in the story they tell themselves; there can’t be any judgment or distance present on the part of the actor. Beckinsale so totally inhabited that role that I found myself reacting to her the way I would a human, not a cartoon or stock movie character. It’s the feeling you get that makes you refer to fictional characters as “realistic” and “grounded” without quite knowing why.
There are so many others, too. Guy Pearce does a hero’s job in L.A. Confidential playing Ed Exley, an insecure and conniving detective who wants to do the right thing but get plenty of glory along the way. He definitely evolves over the course of the film, softening a little toward the men he once viewed as obstacles to his success, but it’s still a tightrope that Pearce walks with amazing skill. The film has Russell Crowe playing a two-dimensional he-man, but Pearce is the really magnetic one. The scene where Exley tries to put the moves on Lynn (Kim Basinger) is fantastic precisely because of Exley’s desire to seem full of himself but somehow subtle about it. He swaggers around, trying on lines that sound corny and sad at once, and you get so much of who he is in these moments. Pearce — and director Curtis Hanson, and writer Brian Helgeland — know exactly what makes this guy tick, and it’s more complicated and difficult to pin down than any of the other leads. He’s what makes the film work.
Vince Vaughn used to excel at this. Before he went for the roles that let him be a likable clown, he made a pair of comedies with Jon Favreau that required him to be prickly, irritating, somewhat endearing, and a little tough to take. In Swingers (written by Favreau and directed by Doug Liman) and Made (written and directed by Favreau), Vaughn plays men who mostly make Favreau’s characters look even better. He’s a cad and struggling actor in Swingers, there to support his friends in tough times but also unable to see much of the world from someone else’s perspective. In Made, he’s even more aggressive, a kind of lazy, cynical coaster who thinks far more of his people skills and career prospects than anyone else does. He’s not the enemy, though, in either film, and he’s not just a foil for the lead. He has the presence of performance to risk being disliked simply for being a rounded person that you might not want to hang out with all the time. He’s pitiable, but not pathetic; grating, but loyal.
Many films try to do this; just as many don’t succeed. I have to think it’s because, while complexity might sound appealing in the abstract, it turns out to be a lot harder to do in practice simply for the risks involved. We want to know who the good guys and bad guys are, and if we’re dealing with anti-heroes or people who slowly break bad, we want that spelled out for us, too. But there are fringes where certain characters can thrive, and where storytellers can give life to men and women who say or do the wrong thing just because it’s what someone like that would do. It’s not always comfortable being reminded of who we are and what we can be, but what else is art for?