That may be the worst subject on this blog yet. You’re welcome.
So the other day Failure to Launch was on TV. As you might expect, it’s not a particularly good film. I have nothing against romantic comedies per se, but I tend to dislike contrived situations, characters failing to communicate, predictable humor… basically the very things most romantic comedies hinge on.
However horrific a film or book, though, there’s usually something to be learned. (Even if it’s about what to avoid.) In this case, there were some subtle characterization bits that I liked.
Basically, the lead woman is someone who is hired to motivate men to move out, usually by their parents. That’s what the whole plot hinges on: Sarah Jessica Parker needs to get 35-year-old Matthew McConaughey out of the house. His mother still does his laundry, cleans, and cooks luxurious meals.
At this point, the audience is thinking two things. One: No wonder the dude sticks around. Two: If his mother wants him out of the house, shouldn’t she stop doing those things before she starts hiring complete strangers?
Both these things are handled surprisingly well later on in the film. As it turns out, the reason that he’s still living at home is that his fiancée died a few years ago, and he’s struggled to adjust. When he later finds out that his new girlfriend was hired by his parents, he’s genuinely hurt. He tells his parents that they could’ve just asked him to move out. They never did.
Good point. However much of a lazy slob the guy is, both these things create some amount of sympathy for someone we could only roll our eyes at in the beginning.
Other motivations are also cleared up: his parents never asked him to move out because they didn’t want to pressure him after his fiancée’s death. His mother never even wanted him to move out: she’s worried what life alone with her husband would be like. It’s much easier to have a son around as a buffer.
As another example, in one scene, Sarah Jessica Parker is meeting a different client at a small café. He’s your stereotypical nerd, short and chubby and into Star Wars, presumably living in his mother’s basement. She’s talking about what a wonderful guy he is, smart and imaginative, all those good things, and he excuses himself to go to the bathroom. He says, “Please don’t leave.”
Again – instant sympathy for a character who only shows up in a single scene. The audience can’t help but wonder how many women did just up and walk off.
None of these things are particularly deep or well-handled… but it does work. With only a few lines – sometimes only a few words – you have a full understanding of someone’s situation and motivations.
As someone who has a tendency to let her characters divulge backstory and motivations over pages and pages, I could probably take a few lessons from that.*
* This is hugely embarrassing. Did I mention yet that it’s a really bad film? Yeah? Okay then.