Monday, April 26, 2010

The quality of a movie vs. the morals of its characters

Upon seeing the trailer for I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, I felt an instant sense of moral superiority over it.

I didn't know who Tucker Max was at the time. Perhaps that sense of moral superiority would have been even greater if I had.

The film looked like a celebration of idiotic frat boys who treat women like objects, and conquests like a form of currency they use to measure themselves against each other. Just look at the poster to the right -- this woman doesn't even get to have a face. (And the shit-eating grin on this guy's face doesn't exactly ingratiate us to him.)

Then I looked up Tucker Max on wikipedia. It turns out he's a blogger and book author who talks about his sexual exploits with frequently drunken women, who has been sued and picketed for "promoting a culture of rape."


But darn it if Max doesn't take himself to task for these very things in I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, a movie that I seem to have liked a lot more than most critics.

See, I think most of them carried in with them the same impression of the movie I did, then failed to give the movie a chance to shed that impression.

There are reasons to dislike the movie, I'm sure, but its apparent misogyny is not one of them. That's because director Bob Gosse and writers Max and Nils Parker take pains to show the consequences of any instances of woman-hating.

Okay, let's get it out of the way -- of the three main male characters, two of them appear to hate women. There's Tucker (Matt Czuchry), who frequently proclaims that he loves women when people accuse him of hating them. But there's every reason to believe that he doth protest too much. Then there's Drew (Jesse Bradford), who is on a rather exaggerated woman-hating jag because he just caught his fiancee felating an up-and-coming hip hop star. These two characters speak much of the film's anti-female dialogue, but in Drew's case, it's a bit more excusable as a period of acting out, the direct result of having his heart broken. Tucker is the real asshole, whose belittling of woman is part of a life philosophy.

The third character, Dan (Geoff Stults), the bachelor who has inspired the bachelor party that's the focal point of the film's first half, does not hate women. In fact, he loves his fiancee quite a bit, and rightly so -- she's an absolute peach. In many movies where guys go off on a bachelor party that threatens the wedding in some undefinable way, the bride back home is portrayed as a harpy -- last year's universally loved The Hangover being a prime example. But not here, and that was one of my first indicators that this movie wasn't going to be quite what I thought it was. Dan's fiancee, Kristy (Keri Lynn Pratt), is a three-dimensional sweetheart. She's concerned when Tucker involves her fiancee in a lie, and hurt because Dan chose to go along with it. But she's disarmingly tender toward Dan when he returns after his obligatory night in jail (isn't it always the bachelor who gets it worst in these movies? See again The Hangover). And when she later tells Tucker that he's not welcome at their wedding, it's not her idea -- she's conveying Dan's frustration with his supposed best friend. In fact, she is calm and dispassionate with Tucker, expressing the disappointment of a hurt mother more than anger.

Kristy is one of two women we get to know well in I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, and the other one is also a peach. True, she's also a whore with a heart of gold, and that may carry its own separate problems from a gender politics standpoint. She's actually a stripper, rather than a whore, and she has a cute little son. And she gives as good as she gets. She's assigned the task of going toe-to-toe with Drew as he spouts whatever female-related nastiness comes to his mind, and she's more than equal to it. In fact, as she steadily melts Drew's hard exterior, their relationship evolves into a competition over XBox 360 at her house, and Drew bonding with her son. It becomes clear that Drew doesn't hate women, not in the slightest -- he just hates the one that dicked him over, who we never actually meet. She's just a symbol the potential of human beings to be insensitive, not a developed character.

I'm not saying this is stuff we haven't seen before. I am saying, however, that it's representative of conventional Hollywood gender politics, not something aberrant and hateful. Max may like to shock us with the words that come out of his character's mouths, but he also understands what we the audience will applaud, and what we'll find deplorable.

Okay, so let's look at the character based on and named after Tucker Max himself. We open on Tucker having sex with a deaf girl, and the police breaking into his house because her animal cries are mistaken for rape. Tucker, of course, is having sex with the girl because it's an exotic conquest he can check off his list. Drew and Dan are both appalled by his behavior, which goes further to indicate that Tucker is representative of Tucker, not of the world the movie is establishing. Tucker proceeds to hit on everything that moves, his confidence serving him well at times. Emphasis on "at times." It's not like the goal of this movie is to demonstrate how its subject always goes home with his target. He may be able to shock some women into the bedroom, but more often than not, he just shocks them into leaving. He single-handedly drives away a bachelorette party by taking his comments too far. He pisses off one woman by insulting her cat. He calls another woman fat, and this leads directly to his glorious karmic comeuppance, a scene so gross and so funny that I won't spoil it here. Suffice it to say that Tucker Max did not make this movie to show you how great Tucker Max is. He's in it for the story, and for some level of truth -- even if both of those go against him. The only other person we actually see him have sex with in the movie is another that fits into the "exotic conquest" category -- I won't spoil that here, either.

We may think that frat boys are awful. But it doesn't mean they aren't intriguing characters who can sometimes yield interesting insights about the human condition. Just because a movie is about frat boys -- or really, one in particular, who is like the king of all fraternity archetypes -- doesn't mean it is automatically going to be bad. Especially if the film's mission seems to be to demonstrate just how shortsighted their world view really is.


Don Handsome said...

Vance, I applaud your ability to look beyond what a film appears to be, but in this case I don't agree with your take at all.

I actually think of this film as an elaborate make-over of Tucker Max. And while I do think you're accurately portraying him as the most despicable character in the film, the level of discpicability the character Tucker Max in the film is given is proportionally far lower than what the real life guy achieves. Movie Tucker is believable based on real-life Tucker's reputation (people know him to be despicable, and they will find the character in the film to also be despicable) but he also washes some of the filth out of Tucker Max;s reputation - people will see this film and think 'oh he's not actually THAT bad'. So what you're defending is a fluff piece designed to make a real life guy seem less evil than he is.

Surely this film should be asked to stand on its own, and by those merits, maybe you've accurately described it. But I saw it and I thought it was a piece of shit. I thought it stayed in the gutter too long and that all of its characters (except the peach of the video-game stripper mom) were unlikeable for various reasons. I also thought the film-making was sloppy (which is an aspect of the film you didn't discuss in your "recommendation").

But maybe I didn't like it because I can't separate my opinions of Tucker Max from the film. Maybe that's unfair, but I have to say that the film was certainly trying to white-wash this loser. Trying and failing. When I was formulating my opinion of this movie after seeing it last year I thought a lot about the validity of considering the real-life Max. Ultimately I decided that you HAVE to consider the real life guy when judging a movie like this...especially if you recognize that its designed to reinvent a public figure. Think of the People Vs. Larry Flynt - a film that is only marginally more successful than I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell - could you imagine watching that film with no reference point regarding Flynt? It wouldn't have worked at all...that film, like Beer/Hell assumes that we know about its subject, and they're both trying to tell us that the subject isn't as bad as we thought. The difference is that Flynt has some Freedom of Speech elements embedded in its white wash, whereas Tucker Max gives us poop.

I still love you though.

Vancetastic said...

Don, you present an interesting perspective that I agree with to an extent. Where I disagree is the level of fame you ascribe to Tucker Max. Perhaps I've just been living under a rock, but I wasn't even aware there was a person named Tucker Max until about two months ago. I'd like to think I'm generally in tune with famous pop culture personalities -- I'm familiar with the characters on Jersey Shore, for example, even though I've never watched the program -- and I didn't know who he was. There are always people who everyone else knows but you, and Max may be one of those people. But to be fully convinced that this is an image makeover, I'd have to believe that more people were familiar with his image in the first place.

Then again, I suppose you can be trying to make over your image even if you are only known to your group of friends. So I guess the question is, how famous does a person have to be for us to consider their movie a crass and calculating attempt to portray themselves in a better light?

And even setting aside this question, it just goes back to how our perceptions of movies are highly personal. We all see movies with different awareness levels of what went into them, which is clearly what allowed me to enjoy this movie more than you did. That's why it's kind of important for a critic to try to set aside those influences and review it on its own terms. (And since I actually will be reviewing this film, it's an important discussion point.) Did the movie entertain me? Yes. Did I consider it to have meaningful insights on gender relations and friendships? Yes, though that's probably crediting it with slightly more intellectualism than it deserves. Did I feel like Max was trying to take himself down a peg, but wink a little bit at the audience to show you that he was still a slimy jerk despite all he had "learned"? Yes, and that kind of made me appreciate it a little bit more -- it was honest enough to indicate that although he had legitimately gained some insight about how to be a better person, he was still a scoundrel at heart.