(Each day I like to post around a thousand words of original content here to the CCLaP website; the days I don't have a review of a contemporary book or movie ready, I like to try other ideas, like this series of hopefully funny, hyper-specialized themed movie lists. For the full list of "Ten Movies About..." entries, click here.)
Today: Ten great movies all featuring charming a--holes. As always, listed in chronological order.
The Music Man (1962)
One of the best-ever film adaptations of a golden-age musical, this Wilson & Lacey story has a pretty ingenious gimmick at its core; it's the tale of flimflam man Harold Hill (played by Robert Preston in the movie version), traveling across the Midwest at the beginning of the 20th century selling musical instruments to gullible small-town school districts, painting vivid pictures in these parents' minds of glittering civic marching bands but then skipping town with the money before actually ordering any equipment or uniforms. Ah, but then he gets to River City, where he falls in love not only with shrewd spinster Marian Paroo (Shirley Jones) but also her precocious son Winthrop (eight-year-old Ron Howard, in what was believe it or not already his twelfth professional acting gig), making things just a whole lot more complicated when it comes to the usual moment to take the money and run. Surprisingly smart and ribald, it's one of those films that helps you understand why people went so crazy for hokey musicals back then in the first place, and why this particular musical is forever being re-staged.
One of the last Hollywood epics to be made in the grand old style (lots of fake-looking sets, lots of stationary cameras), the entire point of this movie even existing is to offer a deep portrait of a charming a--hole, maverick WWII general George Patton. It's a fascinating look at a stubborn hero, a man who brought both glory and shame upon himself for refusing to appease higher-ups who he thought in the wrong; and by being made in the middle of the countercultural movement of the '60s and '70s, it also examines whether the traits inherent in a Patton symbolize everything great about America or everything wrong. That's why the movie was able to do so well right in the middle of those freak-flag Easy Rider hippie years, and why it's held up so well over the years as it has, because it's not only a traditional biopic but also a deep and complex look at the so-called "American spirit," a rumination on national dreams versus national realities and how each inform the other.
The French Connection (1971)
Let's face it -- that cops like Jimmy "Popeye" Doyle (Gene Hackman in his first big breakthrough role) are the very reason such things as Miranda Rights were even invented, because of such policemen's zeal in trampling all over the civil rights of the suspects they would beat and torture back in the day. Ah, but you love him anyway, don't ya!? That's the paradox at the heart of the brilliant French Connection, the very first R-rated film to win a Best Movie Oscar; that in order to shut down a major heroin-smuggling operation based out of France, the cops of this Dirty-Harry-era New York end up just violating the hell out of a whole barrel full of people along the way. That's the real reason to keep watching this film in modern times, even with its infamous car-chase finale now being tame in comparison to contemporary films; that even as its pop-culture elements become dated like any other genre flick, its underlying look at bad cops doing ultimately good things is a timeless issue, one dealt with here in an intriguing way, long before the invention of citizen videocameras and brutality lawsuits. Love him or hate him, it's fascinating to spend two hours with a guy like Popeye, a fact I think a lot of people would agree with, hence the continued popularity of this movie.
All That Jazz (1979)
If there's one thing greater than a brilliant creative a--hole, that's a brilliant creative a--hole who realizes exactly what kind of a--hole they are, and has the smarts to sit down and write a project that devastatingly attacks their own weaknesses. And thus do we come to fabled real-life a--hole Bob Fosse, who by the mid-'70s had not only won half a dozen Tonys for his choreography, not only directed such classic movies as Cabaret and Lenny Bruce biopic Lenny, but had burned through two wives while doing so, nursed a wicked drug addiction, and had a heart attack that almost killed him. All That Jazz, then, is an autobiography of sorts, taking one of the coldest and most dispassionate looks on those years this side of Jerry Stahl's Permanent Midnight; but it's more than that as well, a lush postmodern musical on its own, a Broadway show as envisioned by Surrealists that builds complex dance numbers out of subjects like open-heart surgery. It's a movie quite unlike any other ever made, one impossible to forget once you've seen it; it's a shame that it doesn't get as much attention these days than it does, and I encourage you to check it out if you never have before.
Children of a Lesser God (1986)
So have you ever wondered what exactly deaf actress Marlee Matlin ever did to make her such a permanent fixture in Hollywood like she is? This is what she did! Based on the Tony-winning play by Mark Medoff (who also wrote the screenplay), this is the role that earned Matlin her Oscar -- and the interesting thing is that it wasn't for playing a noble handicapped person who pluckily overcomes the odds, but rather a surly a--hole who's given up on life, who has embraced her deafness in all its wallowing self-pity and who wishes that the rest of humanity would simply leave her the f--k alone, bitterly content as she is as the janitor at a specialized school for the deaf, where as a child she was once a prodigious student. Ah, but new professor William Hurt is having none of it, being the good sensitive guy we all wish could be our boyfriend, slowly pulling Matlin's character out of the pitch-black emotional prison she had created for herself. It's more complicated than that, obviously, better than I'm making it sound here; just go check it out sometime when you get the chance, and don't let this quiet little gem evade your attention.
Good Will Hunting (1997)
Oh boy do I love this movie, precisely because Matt Damon's character Will Hunting is such an unmitigated little prick; a poverty-riddled janitor and construction worker in Boston who just happens to possess one of the smartest brains on the planet, he is not only instantly distrustful of every person he meets but also uses his intellect expressly to humiliate them in public, being so intelligent as to be able to dig under the skin of people mere minutes after he's met them and find all of their particular hot buttons. For good reason, then, most people aren't willing to deal with Hunting in their lives, although three remarkable people are -- his best friend Chuckie (Ben Affleck), who understands the pain that drives him; his British Ivy-League-student girlfriend Skylar (Minnie Driver), a tough-as-nails smartass who won't let him evade tough questions; and psychiatrist Sean Maguire (Robin Williams, in a highlight from an otherwise checkered career), a fellow former rough-and-tumble "Southie" who nurses his own emotional problems regarding intelligence and love, who Will is being forced to see by court order in order to avoid jail time regarding a recent public fistfight. It's the complex interplay of these three against the ultra-complicated Will in the center that fuels this film, and is also what earned Damon and Affleck an Oscar for writing the script; it's a surprisingly edgy and offensive film, in fact, one I highly recommend if you've never seen it.
Galaxy Quest (1999)
A film that originally came and went from the theatres without much fanfare but has since become a big cult hit, Galaxy Quest is pretty much a flat-out parody/homage to the Star Trek universe; a look at the sad-sack cast of an early-'80s science-fiction television show, who twenty years later have had to resort to things like mall openings and fan films. Ah, but try to explain this to the actual space aliens who kidnap the crew one day, an entire race who has been watching the television broadcasts from afar and mistaking them for real; in fact, their entire military and space programs are based off the ridiculous B-movie scripts of the original '80s TV show they were all a part of, making for some of the funniest jokes regarding the Trek universe you will ever see in a motion picture, loving jokes that aren't exactly mean-spirited but definitely poke fun of the most radical elements of both fandom and low-budget science-fiction. The pillar holding all the goofiness together, though, is Tim Allen filling in for the Kirk role; his Jason Nesmith is both everything we love and hate about pompous television actors with cult followings, a man you want to both cheer and smack and that Allen seems to have been born to play. If you've ever laughed at the genre's well-known tendency to hire British actors to "class up the joint," or to give them ridiculous catchphrases that then haunt them the rest of their careers, you owe it to yourself to see this film if you never have.
Boiler Room (2000)
Wow, talk about a movie you never thought could be as good as it is -- a look at obnoxious lower-class Long Island frat boys who all become day traders, pushing the boundaries of human decency in order to pressure spineless midwesterners into investing in stock scams and semi-illegal pyramid schemes. And the secret, of course, as to why this movie is as brilliant as it is, lies in all the aspects it shares with such other brilliant blue-collar playwrights as David Mamet and Arthur Miller; because of the sparkling dialogue, because of the surprisingly earnest quest for the fabled American Dream that is fueling the con jobs, because of the characters who are so astonishingly complex, despite their caveman-like understanding of the way the world works. ("Me make money. Me win game. Me better than you. Me own big house and fast car. Screw you!") Featuring a whole host of frat-boy actors being so much better than you ever thought they could be (including Giovanni Ribisi, Jamie Kennedy, Tom Everett Scott, Vin Diesel [yes I said Vin Diesel], and even a cameo by Ben Affleck that you will never forget), this is an explosive debut by writer-director Ben Younger, and it's a shame that he hasn't gotten a chance to make a decent movie since.
Baise Moi (2000)
A film that played in exactly six American movie theatres when originally released, this NC-17 French shocker has a surprisingly simple concept at its core; it's the story of acquaintances and fellow nihilists Nadine and Manu (real-life porn stars Karen Lancaume and RaffaÃ«la Anderson), who just basically snap one day and decide to go on a murderous road trip, having sex and then killing as many people as they possibly can before the bloody shoot-out with police that they're both expecting well ahead of time. And so that's what they do; for two freaking hours, in fact, having cold pornographic-style sex with a whole variety of other real-life porn stars across the French countryside, then slitting throats and putting bullets in brains and basically becoming the psychotic Thelma & Louise. And indeed, despite how it sounds, this movie was written and directed by a pair of radical feminists named Virginie Despentes and Coralie, and is in fact meant as a statement of female empowerment; don't let that, though, stop you from enjoying the insanely graphic sex, the sickening violence that happens like clockwork, nor the nagging feeling that you actually dated one of these women during a dark year in college that you no longer let yourself think about.
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
Hey hey, it's our old friend Gene Hackman at it again, this time as the wealthy patriarch of an erratic family in New York, in filmmaker Wes Anderson's first movie after his big breakthrough Rushmore. And indeed, it's no coincidence that the entire film is named after Hackman's character; he's simply brilliant here as a charming a--hole, a philandering husband and demanding father who has alienated just about every single person in his life besides his man-servant (who tried to stab him to death earlier in life anyway, so doesn't really count). Now, be warned that Anderson's films are not for everyone; they are highly stylized fantasy tales, all of them, with a winking erudite humor that gets funnier with every higher college degree you possess. That said, if you're a fan of such projects as PG Wodehouse's "Wooster and Jeeves" stories, you're bound to be a fan of The Royal Tenenbaums as well, a movie that shares little with the former in terms of storyline and time period but a lot in terms of attitude and humor.
Know of another great movie featuring charming a--holes? By all means, leave a mention of it in the comments!