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Failure to Launch: A Decade of Losers and Fakers

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Hulks, high-flyers and web-slingers – it was a decade dominated by superheroes of all shapes, sizes, and hues. And in the unlikely event that Batman, Superman or Iron Man failed to wow you at the box office, there were brooding, musclebound guys with cool gadgets (Bourne and Bond); a precocious young wizard (Harry Potter); and a cancer-ridden sadist (Jigsaw).

But I’m not holding out for a hero or clamoring for the arrival of yet another new movie franchise. No, there are times when I just want to see men getting on with the things they do best – drinking too much, losing their jobs, and failing to understand women.

Larry David set the benchmark in HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, with a character who excels in converting minor social embarrassment into full-scale disaster. I’m not sure whether laughter was the appropriate reaction to Oliver Stone’s W., in which Josh Brolin portrayed the former US President as biggest chump of them all. Still, it is gratifying to see supporting actors like Brolin, Paul Rudd, and William H. Macy enjoying their moment in the spotlight. So here are some recent movie characters whose capacity for self-delusion and screwing things up made them as memorable as the guys with the guns, the capes, and the attitude.

Roger Swanson (Campbell Scott in Roger Dodger, 2002)

Special talent: “boiling things down to their essence.” Roger, a copywriter and self-proclaimed Lothario, prowls the streets and bars of Manhattan in what he calls “a state of total receptivity”, which is a pretentious way of saying that he’s horny. His witty opening speech on the diminishing utility of modern man (“our final destiny will be to lift couches”) suggests that Roger knows he’s one of an endangered species. But when he’s dumped by his older lover and boss (a ruthless Isabella Rossellini), Roger mixes up a toxic cocktail of misogyny and pseudo-psychology in a bid to get his teenage nephew Nick (Jesse Eisenberg) laid. It’s left to glamorous barflies Elizabeth Berkley and Jennifer Beals to show young Nick what women really want and to remind Roger that there’s more to life than making people feel bad.

Miles Raymond (Paul Giamatti in Sideways, 2004)

Special talents: oenophilia and melancholia. Wine and whining go hand-in-hand for aspiring novelist Miles and his priapic buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church), as their bachelor trip to the California vineyards turns sour. You can admire Jack’s capacity for having fun – even if that does involve cheating on his fiancée with the saucy Sandra Oh. But Miles, who can be both passionate and eloquent on the subject of his beloved Pinot Noir, is crippled by what his pal aptly calls “neg-head downer shit” and a tendency to “drink and dial”. With his perpetual frown and bad habits like pilfering cash from his mom and colluding in Jack’s deceptions, it looks as though divorcé Miles will remain a singleton. Luckily for him, waitress Maya (Virginia Madsen) has brains, beauty, and a soft spot for unpublished writers.

Bernie Lootz (William H. Macy in The Cooler, 2003)

Special talent: turning winners into losers. He has the name and the face of a man dogged by disappointment, so it’s fitting that middle-aged Bernie is employed by a Las Vegas casino to end gamblers’ winning streaks. His “cooling” technique doesn’t involve violence or anything supernatural: Bernie just has an aura of failure that he transmits to others. A night of bed-shaking and (possibly) life-changing sex with waitress Natalie (Maria Bello) spells disaster, but not for any of those conventional Hollywood reasons involving unwanted pregnancies or vengeful ex-lovers. No, in finding his mojo Bernie has belatedly made himself “lucky” in a way that could prove very expensive for his boss (Alec Baldwin).

Danny Donahue (Paul Rudd in Role Models, 2008)

Special talent: being a “realist.” Energy drink salesman Danny can’t stop nitpicking about language (“venti’s the only one that doesn’t mean large”), which drives his exasperated girlfriend Beth (Elizabeth Banks) to label him “a miserable dick”. After telling a bunch of schoolkids that “drugs are awesome” and “life is horrible” Danny and colleague Wheeler (Seann William Scott) crash their company’s Minotaur-themed vehicle and narrowly avoid jail. A cruel irony condemns Danny to park his superiority complex and spend 150 hours mentoring Christopher Mintz-Plasse, a geek obsessed with a medieval role-playing game. Will Danny finally wake up to the fact that too much realism can be as injurious to your health as narcotics or dodgy energy drinks?

Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg in A Serious Man, 2009)

Special talent: asking for help. While big names like George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and John Malkovich made utter fools of themselves in the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading, this '60s-set black comedy showcases the considerably less famous Michael Stuhlbarg. Larry is a good man whose life is going down the can simply because he does nothing. Health problems and incipient middle age aside, physics professor Larry is a victim of his own indecision, loyalty, and desire to please his demanding family. Perhaps if he was less accommodating and a tiny bit more cynical, he wouldn’t have been banished to the Jolly Roger motel by his adulterous wife or allowed himself to be bribed by an unscrupulous student. Yes, a little more chutzpah and a few less rabbis might have made Larry a happier man.

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About Susannah Straughan

  • http://www.filmcalamity.com Jonathan Sullivan

    Miles Raymond is my favorite movie character of all-time, and the benchmark for the “sad sack” archetype.

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