Tuesday, May 28, 2019

No Villains Necessary

Intrigued by the trailer, which was funny, and aware of the good reviews, I went with my son this weekend to see BooksmartHe was into going having seen the trailer also and because he seemed to have no problem taking a break from films (and shows) involving superheroes or fantasy.  Plus, at 13, being that he's wrapping up his 8th-grade school year, he had no reservations about seeing a film whose characters are high schoolers.

First of all, I will say that it's a terrific film, a teen comedy that ranks with the best of them. Olivia Wilde makes an impressive directing debut, and the two leads, Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever, make a memorable comedy duo, their chemistry just about perfect.  This is a film, I have a feeling, I'm going to be watching from time to time as the years go by.

And there's something else. Booksmart is a particular type of comedy that you come across sometimes: it has no antagonists, no villains.  As I left the theater, that struck me, maybe because I read so much crime fiction and have of late been watching movies (and shows) that involve fantastical villains, characters trying to dominate worlds, alter universes, control matter itself.  Comedy - so odd - is one of the few forms of storytelling that can pull you in and carry you along without having an antagonist of any kind.  That's not to say good comedies never have villains; of course they do.  Comedies have villains (only comic ones) just like non-comic drama does.  But in comedy, it's not essential to have an antagonist to make the story work, and Booksmart hews to that line.  It's not a teen comedy that has a character anything like, for example, Rachel MacAdams' character, Regina George, in Mean Girls.  What the two leads in Booksmart encounter during their last day in school and then during their nocturnal odyssey to get to the coolest party in town are people who are silly, eccentric, conceited, self-involved, vain, ruthlessly honest.  But the script doesn't treat anyone as nasty or malevolent, even in a humorous way. It winds up accepting, in some fashion, just about all of its characters. That it does this and still manages to be a bracing film, with no treacle, no sentimentality, is yet another thing it has going for it.

But about that kind of comedy in general, the comedies that don't have antagonists, only protagonists and the obstacles they meet or protagonists and the people with foibles whom the protagonists encounter: Isn't that a lot like regular life?  In a way, it seems to me, comedies without antagonists reflect day to day reality quite closely.  Malevolence may lurk everywhere; all you need do is listen to the news for thirty seconds to get evidence of that.  But in daily life, it's more the dealings with other people's egos and vanity and pride and laziness, their self-absorption and inattention, their wealth of insecurities, that one bumps up against.  The times you meet actual evil, evil like a villain in a story has, are rare.  Day to day, month to month, year to year, it's the frustration and the ridiculousness of encountering average human foibles that can drive you nuts.  And let's not forget your own misreadings of other people, a point that's quite central to Booksmart; the limited scope of your own vision doesn't help matters either. Certain comedies capture all this better than any other type of story, and they don't require a "heavy" to do it.

The best comedies, however contrived or artificial the surface of their plots may be, are at bottom a highly realistic mode of fiction.


Claire Booth said...

I've been hearing really good things about this movie. And what a great analysis, Scott. We think in terms of heroes vs. villains so much, this is such a refreshing perspective on things.

Dana King said...

Good point about day-to-day life lacking villains. I forget who said this and I'm paraphrasing badly to suit my needs, but we should be wise never to attribute to malevolence what can be explained by incompetence.