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No Sympathy for the Protagonist
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Warning: If you haven't seen Dr. Zhivago, Vanilla Sky or Sideways, here be spoilers.
Every once in a while I come across a movie I end up disliking, which everybody else seems to like. This isn't too unusual for anybody, and my DVD shelves are full of examples that go the other way (heck, I even liked Bewitched). But sometimes a movie gets so much praise that I have to wonder what all the fuss was about.
The first time this happened was with Dr. Zhivago. The movie garnered heaps of critical acclaim, lots of awards, and swarms of fans, but when I watched it, I was left cold. Most recently it happened with two movies back to back, Vanilla Sky and Sideways. After some thought, I figured out what makes me dislike these movies: I can't sympathize with the main characters, and if I can't sympathize, I get bored.
The titular character in Dr. Zhivago (played by Omar Sharif) has an extramarital affair, and then spends the rest of his life, and the rest of the movie, pining for the other woman. At the end it seems he just might get her after all, but no, he collapses and dies, his desire ultimately unfulfilled. The movie also covers how he, his family and his country are affected by the Russian revolution, but the dramatics were lost on me, because I became stuck on one simple point: The man betrays a woman devoted to him, who even forgives him, then wastes his life wanting what he can't have, and we're supposed to feel sorry for him? Sorry, but I can't.
Vanilla Sky is even more blatant in its attempt to garner sympathy for unsympathetic characters. David Aames (Tom Cruise) starts the movie as a rich pretty boy whose inherited fortune has left him lazy in life and apathetic in his relationships. Granted, he is supposed to be unlikeable at the beginning, but by the end of the movie we are to believe he is a changed man, older and wiser, ready to pursue a new life. How that is possible when he spends the entire movie whining for a woman, a woman who actually drops him like a hot potato when a car accident disfigures him, is a mystery to me. David's best friend Brian (Jason Lee), and the would-be girlfriend Sofia (Penelope Cruz), are no prizes either. Brian acts like the typical fair-weather "best" friend, and Sofia's attitude when David attempts to relink with her certainly would have been enough for me to give up the chase. Despite that, the movie tries to convince you Brian and Sofia really did care for David, even if it took David's (apparent) death to make them realize it. Supposedly Brian was just resentful that David "stole" Sofia away from him, and supposedly Sofia just couldn't understand what David was going through after his accident disfigured him. Sorry, I don't buy any of it. Brian and Sofia come off as shallow, and even when the movie ends and David supposedly has learned to appreciate what life and happiness really are, to me he's still the whiny rich boy who took his toys and went home when he couldn't get what he wanted.
To be sure, Vanilla Sky does have a fair share of detractors for other reasons. Some people don't like Tom Cruise, and some people find Cameron Crowe a bit hypocritical when he pats himself on the back for creating a "mystical" movie that's "open to interpretation" which in reality spells everything out in the last ten minutes. The Filthy Critic sums up a lot of these other complaints much better than I can. The only thing more I can say is, suggesting the entire movie is really a dream is a lazy cop-out. Out-of-character behavior? Big gaping plot holes? Oh, no problem, it's all just a dream anyway! But, I digress...
Sideways is different in that the main characters (Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church) really are supposed to be unsympathetic, and there is no intention of redeeming them. Some people (the Filthy Critic included) found this refreshing, and it certainly is different than what movies usually try to offer. However, I see plenty of people in real life down on their luck, full of self-pity, or just plain coasting through life with no interest and/or ability to better themselves, that I don't need a movie to remind me such people exist. Actually, at the very end of the movie, there is a suggestion that one of the main characters might find some redemption after all, but then we never get to see it happen. The Filthy Critic suggests that little bit is out of place with the rest of the movie, and I agree. If there is going to be a happy ending, show us the happy ending. Don't simply suggest there "might" be one. But ultimately, Sideways isn't interested in bettering its characters; it just wants to show the shenanigans such people get themselves into. That's all well and good, I guess, but it's not for me. Create some characters I actually want to root for, and I'm happy. Otherwise, I'll pass.
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