Friday, February 27, 2009

Danny McBride: The Confident Fool

Harold Lloyd was the go-getter for the Jazz Age. Joe E. Brown was the go-getter for the Depression Era. Danny McBride is the go-getter for the End Time.

Classic comedy is filled with humble jerks. But Harold Lloyd did something different with the perennial comedy fool - he gave him confidence and drive. Lloyd came to represent the All-American go-getter - ambitious, determined, enthusiastic and industrious. He was a Horatio Alger character, a down-and-out boy able to achieve the American Dream of wealth and success through hard work, courage and determination. He was able to rise from a humble background to life of respectable middle-class security and comfort. Lloyd's message was that a man could achieve amazing feats if only he believed in himself. Confidence was strength. Confidence was, in and of itself, an achievement. In Girl Shy, Lloyd must acquire confidence to resolve his shyness and stuttering. In Grandma's Boy (1922), Lloyd relies on a magic charm given to him by his grandmother to gain courage and confidence. The importance of confidence comes up in many of Lloyd's films.

During the 1920s, Lloyd's upbeat demeanor and confidence were inspiring to American audiences. But some, including biographer Annette D'Agostino, believe that Lloyd's popularity declined in the early thirties because the Depression-weary public no longer believed in the American Dream. These people waiting on bread lines rejected Lloyd's optimistic lessons of success.

It was at this time that Joe E. Brown took the Harold Lloyd formula and transformed the go-getter character into something new. His was a tougher character for a tougher day. The character could, at times, be an arrogant jerk. Brown's first big hit was Elmer the Great, where he played irascible, conceited pitcher Elmer Kane. Kane was modeled after baseball pitcher Dizzy Dean, who enjoyed bragging about his prowess on the mound. Dean once said, "Anybody who's ever had the privilege of seeing me play knows that I am the greatest pitcher in the world." When a reporter challenged him about his bragging, he replied, "It ain't bragging if you can back it up."'

Now, long after Lloyd and Brown, film fans have been introduced to Danny McBride, who believes as Lloyd that confidence is the key to success and believes as Brown that there's nothing wrong with being an arrogant jerk. Except, truth be told, McBride is a lot more arrogant and jerky than Brown ever was. What might this new comedian say about America and what we, as its citizens, have become?

McBride made his debut in Foot Fist Way (2006) playing Fred Simmons, a fourth-degree black belt in Taekwondo who runs a smalltown dojo. Marc Mohan, movie critic with the Portland Oregonian, wrote, "Simmons instructs his charges. . . in the five pillars of his chosen martial art: Courtesy, Self-Control, Perseverance, Integrity and Indomitable Spirit. These also serve as chapter headings for the film — and Simmons has very little success in his own life abiding by them."

Simmons seems to be trying to outdo W.C. Fields when he beats up a little boy in a taekwondo match. He comes across as creepy while making a pass at a young woman who has come into his office to sign up for classes. Robert Wilonsky, movie critic for the Village Voice, wrote, "Turns out Fred's more loathsome than laughable. . . There's something real about Fred — and something real nasty about him, too, something that lingers after the movie's choked a few laughs out of an audience that won't know whether to pity or punch him."

Simmons is only sympathetic because other characters in the film are even worse than he is. Wilonsky wrote, "He considers himself a warrior; meanwhile, the world is kicking his ass left, right, and sideways." Simmons tells his students that they cannot be soft. He castigates a student for being "weak as hell." He says, in no uncertain terms, that weakness is "disgusting." In his mind, a person needs to stay strong to deal with the challenges of the world. "This world is a dark, dark forest," he tells a young student. "If you open up a man and look into most of their hearts, you'll find disgust and evil. . . Your own parents - your mother and father - would slice your throat just to get ahead. And if you find a wife, you watch her - you don't believe a single word she says - because, at the core, people are shit." Simmons sees the need to be aggressive and confident to raise his status in a society that only respects power and success. He has to fight hard unless he wants to end up as just another punching bag. And he may just be right.

Simmons repeatedly refers to the confidence problems of his student Henry, who can sometimes be seen standing in a corner staring nervously down at his shoes. He warns Henry that his confidence problems are a weakness to be exploited. Henry has come to Simmons after being beaten up by bullies. Under Simmons' instruction, he gains confidence and learns fighting skills, which allow him to beat a surly opponent in a match. It seems, in this context, that confidence is a positive thing. Henry's story arc is much like Harold's story arc in Grandma's Boy.

Simmons falls apart when his wife walks out on him. Holding back tears, Simmons looks into the mirror and reassures himself that he is "cool." Still, Simmons later breaks down crying in front of his class. When his wife comes back to him, he tells her, "I know I may seem like the strongest man you've ever known. . . but the fact is that I'm penetrable. . . I have a human heart ticking under here." Simmons, pouty and doughy, looks like a big lost kid as he says this. He does not look particularly strong by anyone's standards. He only looks silly.

At his introduction in The Freshman, Harold Lamb is looking in a mirror and practicing football cheers. Harold, like Simmons, believes that it is important to put a good face before the public. He looks into the mirror to see what other people will see and he makes sure to perfect his look and manner. He looks in the mirror, too, to give himself encouragement.

Harold, who is getting ready to go to Tate University, feels that he can be popular at the school by mimicking someone who has, himself, managed to become popular at the school. He imagines himself as Chester A. Trask, a student voted the most popular man on campus. Harold also looks to the example of Lester Laurel, the star of the movie College Hero. Besides picking up fashion tips from Laurel, Harold adopts this little dance that Laurel does whenever he meets someone for the first time. Harold seeks success by pretending to be someone else. He will eventually take up football to be like Trask. In this way, he is not much different than Simmons. Simmons emulates B-movie action star Chuck "the Truck" Wallace, who he has seen in the Seven Rings of Pain movie trilogy, and it is to be like Wallace that Simmons has taken up martial arts.

Harold arrives at Tate University. The college, while not a dark forest, is still not the most cordial environment. The first students Harold meets are eager to play pranks on him. The students buddy up with him planning to "ride him." Harold's belief in himself leads him to make wrong assumptions about people and makes him vulnerable to the whims of these pranksters. He imagines himself to be a great guy so, in his mind, it's no wonder these students take an instant liking to him. His confidence, his eagerness and his outgoing personality will manage, in the end, to lead him into an embarrassing situation.

Harold is never seen in a classroom for the entire film. He never encounters a professor. That is because this film is not about education. It is, essentially, about Harold trying to attain social status in his new community.

I see a similar pattern in the story of Harold Lamb and the story of Fred Simmons. Harold is betrayed by his idol, Trask, who participates in the pranks. Simmons is betrayed by his idol, Wallace, who has sex with Simmons' wife. It is darkest before the dawn for both men. Harold suffers the humiliation of losing his pants at a school dance and then finding out that he has been the laughingstock of the school. Simmons suffers a bloody and humiliating beat down by Wallace.

Harold shows at this time that he, too, is penetrable. When his landlady's daughter Peggy holds her arms out to him, Harold falls into her lap and cries helplessly. Peggy tells him, "Stop pretending, Harold — be yourself! Get out and make them like you for what you really are and what you can do!"

Harold was a likable character and audiences had no problem rooting for him, but the self-aggrandizing social climber certainly has a dark side. Harold, with his confidence and ambition, isn't all pleasant and well-meaning. He desires the adulation of the masses. He envies Trask when he steps off a train and has a crowd of cheering students surrounding him and patting him on the back. His ultimate goal is to displace Trask as the most popular man on campus.

Confidence is, to an extent, about self-absorption and believing that you are superior to others. It's about thinking that you should get the job, the girl, the opportunity, because no one else deserves it like you do. In the end, it is Harold who is the hero of the football game, not Trask. It is Harold who spectators surround and cheer. In the same way, spectators surround and cheer Simmons when, at the end of Foot Fist Way, he beats Wallace in a board breaking demonstration. In the end, there can be only one "most popular man." In the end, there can only be one winner.

Believing you have unique abilities is the same as making claims to superior importance, which is to make yourself arrogant. If confidence and arrogance are different, they are not different to a great extent. The line, as they say, is thin. And thinking that you are better than others can offend other people. This mean that confidence, by itself, can be an obnoxious trait. George Carlin did a funny routine criticizing the "self-esteem movement." He pointed out, "Extremely aggressive, violent people think very highly of themselves. Sociopaths have high self-esteem."

Eastbound and Down, Danny McBride's new series for HBO, features McBride as down-and-old baseball pitcher Kenny Powers. Powers is arrogant, foul-mouthed, angry, impulsive, malicious, rude, and obnoxious. He's Elmer Kane on steroids, literally. Powers has been thrown out of baseball for drug use, racist comments, declining performance, and generally boorish behavior. One fans accuses him of "ruining baseball." Powers, looking to regroup, goes back to his hometown in Shelby County, North Carolina, to live with his older brother and teach physical education at the community high school.

Powers, undeterred by his setbacks, refers to himself as a "Goddamn champion" and a "bulletproof tiger." Others, though, describe him as a "big baby," an "asshole," a "piece of shit" and a "bagful of mashed up assholes." But self-image, which is what drives Powers, is all that matters to him. In his narration, Powers provides his ultimate philosophy: "I'm the man who has the ball. I'm the man who can throw it faster than fuck. So that is why I am better than everyone in the world. Kiss my ass and suck my dick, everyone!" It ain't bragging if you can back it up, except that Powers can no longer back it up. Powers started out with legitimate abilities - he could throw a ball at a speed of 101 mph. But that was all he was ever able to do and he is unable to even do that anymore. All he has left is his confidence, which he is determined to cram down people's throats.

Powers is an appallingly bad house guest, which is apparent as soon as he sits down with his brother's family for dinner. Powers laughs uproariously upon learning that his two-year-old niece Rose was named after Kate Winslet's character in Titanic. He pokes one of the other kids at the table. "What's his name," he asks, "fucking Shrek?" Later, Powers sits in the living room downing an uninterrupted series of beers and arguing loudly with a hooker on his cell phone about the amount she wants to charge him for a blowjob.

That's a picture of Rose to the left. The fact that Powers can use such harsh language around this sweet little tot does not say much about his character.

Simmons seems to look down on his brother's middle-class lifestyle. Middle-class is too smalltime for this success-obsessed character. We might assume that Harold Lamb was only after that life of respectable middle-class security and comfort, but it should be considered that Harold Lamb was an outgrowth of Harold Lloyd, who ended up an extremely rich man with one of the most lavish estates in Hollywood. How popular did Harold Lamb really want to be?

Peggy's advice to Harold was to "make them like you for what you really are and what you can do." This is definitely not how it works in Simmons' world. First, success is no longer about being liked. Success is about indulging in hot babes, fast cars, and as much cocaine as a person can stuff up their nose. In a competitive environment, where success is at stake, the motto is, "I'm not here to make friends." Second, it is not always about what you can do as it is about what people think you can do. It is not about belief in your genuine and measurable powers, but driving yourself to success with force of will and false beliefs. But wasn't that also true of Harold Lloyd's characters? In The Freshman, the coach sees promise in Harold not because of how fast he can run or how far he can throw the ball but he sees promise in him for the simple fact that this freshman has "spunk." He has this spirit, this determination, this force of will. Harold, himself, expects to instantly win friends with a little dance and the force of his personality. In Grandma's Boy, the hero's belief in himself is false because this so-called "magic charm" that his grandmother has given him is really a handle from an old umbrella. The hero beats up a burly, murderous tramp in this film based on blind, possibly misguided faith in himself.

McBride has received a great deal of support from comedy heavyweights Will Ferrell and Ben Stiller, both of whom have flexed their comedy muscles in similar territory. Ferrell has played a number of arrogant jerks in Anchorman, Talladega Nights and Blades of Glory. Stiller, when not playing anxious and awkward boobs, has done well for himself playing arrogant jerks in Zoolander, Dodgeball and Tropic Thunder. The stakes are higher when it comes to the success of these characters, who tend to be rich celebrities with little interest in a middle-class lifestyle. The fact that these characters are suddenly so prevalent and so popular has to say something about our current culture.

Harold Lloyd endorsed the American Dream in his films. Danny McBride shows that, seventy years later, the American Dream has produced greed and excess and obnoxious jerks.

No comments:

Post a Comment