The Way, Way Back and making unlikable characters from likable people


By Jason McClain (@JTorreyMcClain)

When I think of Steve Carell, I think of The Office and how the American version turned out to be different than the British version just because Carell is so much more likable than Ricky Gervais.  I think of Even Stevphen with him and Stephen Colbert on The Daily Show.  I think of The 40 Year Old Virgin and how I found it to be one of the funniest movies I’ve seen because of the way Carell played the sweet awkwardness of Andy.

Within the first 15 minutes of The Way, Way Back, I find it impressive that Jim Rash and Nat Faxon made me dislike him more than I would have thought ever possible.  I’m not talking a mild dislike; I mean an active repulsion where I put my hand over my mouth in shock before I ball it into a fist to control my anger.  Then, they keep ratcheting that feeling higher.

I don’t want to make it seem like an unrealistic person.  That’s the thing.  Those words that blurt from his mouth, those actions, those looks come from a detailed character that just happens to be a full-on…well, I won’t say it because this is a family site.  Let’s just say I wouldn’t give him any liquid in my possession if his character started to combust.

It’s so wonderful to watch a preconceived notion turned on its ear.  This got me to thinking about other actors that play bad guys after I start to like them.

Barrowman in Arrow

John Barrowman first came to my attention as Captain Jack Harkness in Doctor Who which led to Torchwood.  Yes, he was self-interested and yes, he would flirt with anything that moved, but that smile and his ultimately unselfish actions led me to believe he was a good guy, no matter what the Doctor thought.  Then, he appeared on Arrow as Malcolm Merlyn and there didn’t seem to be any part of him that was redeemable.  I wanted to like him and his acting and the writing of his character made it impossible.  He had become a villain in the imaginary world of television.

Travolta Broken Arrow

John Travolta had a long run as a nice guy in the shows and movies that I saw.  He was Vinnie Barbarino.  He was Danny Zuko.  He was James in Look Who’s Talking.  Maybe “nice” is the wrong word for Vincent Vega, but he did seem about as innocent as a hit man can be.  Chili Palmer was a wise guy, but he was darn cool doing it.  Then came Broken Arrow, one of my favorite action movie guilty pleasures.  (Meaning I like it when no one else seems to like it.)  He starts to bully poor Christian Slater, beat him up and threaten the world with nuclear destruction and soon I’m rooting against Jules’s partner for a very good reason.

Albert Brooks Drive

Albert Brooks may be my favorite comic writer/director/actor.  I could watch Real Life, Modern Romance, Lost in America and Defending Your Life over and over again.  As I wrote each of those titles my mind drifted over images of people wearing cameras on their heads, talking of friendly casinos and discussions of little brains.  So, when he came on the screen in Drive, I found it so, so wonderful to see the hidden menace behind that affable exterior.

Cromwell LA Confidential

James Cromwell, the farmer who trained Babe and played Zefram Cochran in my favorite (and probably most everyone’s favorite) Next Generation movie, Star Trek: First Contact, later came around as Dudley Smith in L.A. Confidential.  Heck, Kevin Spacey went from a small time hood caught up in huge circumstances to criminal mastermind in just one movie: The Usual Suspects.  His tête-à-tête opponent in that movie, Chazz Palmintieri goes from suspicious hood to creative genius to murderer in Bullets over Broadway and each turn seems like the real man behind the tough guy act that Palmintieri creates.

I’m sure I could suss out some more from my weary brain, and I’m sure that you could probably tell me some more in the comments.  Instead, I’ll just leave you with this bit of advice: as soon as The Way, Way Back comes to your town, go see it.  I might not have made it sound like a must see by talking about Carell as a jerk, but it also has Sam Rockwell playing a gabby part, Allison Janney as a caring, blunt, drunk neighbor, Toni Collette as a mom trying to find her place in the world, Faxon and Rash (in addition to their roles as writers and directors) as two great water park characters and Maya Rudolph as the warden of the summer job asylum.  Plus, there are the kids.  Anna Sophia Robb, Liam James and River Alexander all give great nuanced performances.  The acting across the board shines and Faxon and Rash did a fine job following up their Academy Award win for The Descendants.  I’ve seen it twice, laughed both times and if a friend has yet to see it, might be convinced to see it again.

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