Sunday, November 29, 2015

Manic Pixie Pain in My Ass

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl trope essentially involves a glumly introverted boy meeting a wildly extroverted girl, who manages through her unremitting antics to teach her new acquaintance how to enjoy life.  The film generally credited with originating this formula is the screwball comedy Bringing Up Baby (1938).  But a sexually enchanting dream partner, girl or boy, is not needed to make this sort of film work.  Buddy comedies relied on the same premise long before a new wave of rom-com auteurs revived the Baby formula and ran it into the ground.  Consider The Producers (1967), The In-Laws (1979), and every Francis Veber comedy from A Pain in the Ass (1973) to Ruby & Quentin (2003). 

Hollywood varied this premise to a limited extent.  The main idea behind these films has always been that, despite the constant arguments and misunderstandings, the introvert and extrovert belong together.  We are asked to believe that these men, with their crucial differences, serve to temper one another and achieve success that neither man could achieve on their own.  So, for the purposes of a funny and satisfying story, this duo operates in a normal and proper way to achieve their goals and come to a happy ending.  If the filmmakers did their job well, the happy experience that the duo enjoys on screen is supposed to translate to a happy experience for the people sitting in the audience.  But is this at all realistic?

The characters in these films are not always identified as introvert and extrovert.  One might be called "repressed" and the other might be called "free-spirited."  One might be presented as "the timid novice" and the other might be presented as "the larger-than-life old hand."  A. A. Dowd of the A. V. Club noted that Noah Baumbach's Mistress America (2015), the latest introvert-meets-extrovert buddy comedy, "follow[s] a square seduced by the charms of a pretentious cool kid."  It is, no matter the character designations, essentially the same story. 

Let's talk about Mistress America.  Baumbach is refreshing in the way that he deconstructs this sort of relationship.  The director specializes in portraying painfully dysfunctional characters in painfully dysfunctional relationships.  Film critic Matt Zoller Seitz wrote, "[H]is characters are often so delusional or bitter or ignorant or self-aggrandizing or otherwise unpleasant that I find myself watching certain scenes through the cracks between my fingers."  These type of characters are exposed in full form in Mistress America.  The deficiency of the film's delusional and self-absorbed characters is obvious from the start.  Seitz wrote, "[Brooke] and Tracy match up in a way that they probably both think is marvelous but that quickly shows its downside: they aren't really talking to each other, but having adjacent monologues, with each waiting for a turn to chime in and talk about themselves."  How could these characters ever produce effective teamwork?

At first, the introvert-meets-extrovert formula is applied conventionally to Mistress America.  Tracy (Lola Kirke), a college freshman, is feeling lonely as she tries to adjust to living away from home.  Her mother recommends that she call her soon-to-be stepsister Brooke (Greta Gerwig).  Joe Neumaier of the Daily News wrote, "Tracy is expecting maybe a tour guide to New York.  What she gets is a life force.  Brooke is a ditsy moving windmill, never doing one thing when she could be doing four things. . ."  It isn't often that a character in a film is described as a "windmill," but many critics saw the high-voltage and coolly self-absorbed Brooke as something less than human.  The New York Times’ Stephen Holden called her "a dynamic human whirligig."  The Chicago Sun-Times’ Richard Roeper called her a "non-stop whirling dervish and talking machine."  Roeper added, "[Brooke] has an opinion about everything, is in the middle of a half-dozen AMAZING projects and seems to know all the coolest people and all the best places in New York."

In other films, everything miraculously works out for the extrovert no matter how reckless and ill-conceived their actions are.  But no divine force acts to protect Brooke.  Her downfall is inevitable.  Roeper wrote, "The problem with Brooke is she’s a human mirage. . ."  This free-spirited narcissist is dazzling in the first act, exasperating in the second act, and depressing in the third act.  San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle was not pleased that Brooke was denied Holly Golightly’s happy ending.  He wrote, "As an artist, [Baumbach] is attracted to dreamers and fantasists, but can’t resist puncturing their illusions and presenting them as losers.  He pities his characters, and his pity has nothing to do with sympathy."  Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune wrote, "Baumbach wants to celebrate this charismatic gadfly but also take her down a peg or two."  

We have come to expect from odd couple comedies that, during the course of the couple’s exhilarating misadventures, the initial animosity between the two will dissipate and a joyful comradeship will develop in its place.  But that doesn’t happen in this case.  Todd McCarthy of the Hollywood Reporter called the film "a girl-bonding-and-breaking tale."  The joyful bonding that occurs at the start of the film disintegrates into bitter ashes by the final scene.

Filmmakers cannot resist the temptation of showcasing a flashy character.  They know that a character with a spirited nature will create action and make a film more vibrant.  But, beyond the vigor, enthusiasm and sparkle, there isn’t always much about the flashy character to admire.  They are undisciplined and unfocused and their spirited ways tend to lead only to chaos, pain and failure.  In the end, this is the sad and honest message of Mistress America.

Additional notes

For the sake of full disclosure, I should admit that I do not always get along well with extroverts.  This likely has colored my perspective of introvert-meet-extrovert films. 

When I think of extroverts, I think of my Uncle Sonny.  My uncle may be 81 years old but he acts as if he is 12.  I have dedicated my book about the man-child to my uncle.  This could be interpreted as a backhanded compliment, but the man was in truth an ongoing inspiration for the book.  And, don't get me wrong, I do appreciate his many good qualities and I do have love for him.  But our differences often create trouble. 

One day, I became terribly irritated with my uncle.  I don’t remember what got me mad, but I am sure that it wasn’t a single incident.  I was so fed up with him that I couldn’t bring myself to talk to him.  He explained the problem to my mother succinctly: "Anthony is an introvert and I am an extrovert."  He made it clear that he didn’t think much of the introvert.  His unsophisticated analysis of the introvert came down to one sentence: "They sit there and look at everyone."  My uncle believes that it is the dynamic life force of the extrovert that makes the Earth turn on its axis.  He doesn't, in any way, share my view that mankind's greatest accomplishments have come from the quiet observer.  Probably, neither of us is right. 

I say without hesitation that my uncle is the most extroverted person that I have known in my life.  His antic, attention-seeking behavior grates on my nerves at times.  He, as a classic extrovert, likes to seek out external stimulation.  He derives fulfillment from interacting with other people and engaging in rousing activities.  The most flashy, high-spirited extrovert can be categorized as an adventurous personality type.  They become terribly bored unless they are getting into mischief and taking risks.

One morning, I went with my uncle to a convenience store.  After I paid for my breakfast croissant, I found him outside the store smirking like Peck's Bad Boy.  He told me that he walked out of the store without paying for his coffee and no one even noticed him.  "Why would you do that?" I asked him.  He didn’t answer me.  Stealing the coffee had given him a thrill.  He was enjoying himself so much that I doubt he even heard my question.

It makes me think about society in general.  Our political differences may not be philosophical.  Maybe, the conservative vs. liberal war comes down to a war between introvert and extrovert or a war between left-brainers and right-brainers.  It would be nice to think that the two groups could complement one another and develop a joyful and trouble-free comradeship just like in the movies.

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