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.