I just read a review of the new movie The Incredible Burt Wonderstone and one of the complaints is that the lead character, the one after whom the movie is named, the protagonist is completely unlikeable. As the reviewer states about the seminal moment in the movie, “it’s too late for Burt or the movie to win back audience affections, on or off the screen.”
This highlights a problem I find in a lot of movies right now: there is nobody to like or cheer for.
I appreciate that this is all personal opinion and tastes differ. What I will write next may totally rankle with your own opinions. Cool.
In too many movies I see of late, I walk out of the theatre dissatisfied because I could find no one for whom to root. And for me, I need to root for someone when I spend time with a story.
Stoker? I found none of the characters likeable or in any way redeeming.
Prometheus? I want them all dead at the end. The closest I came to cheering for anyone was the robot.
I understand that the root “proto-“ means leading or first rather than in favour of and so each of the main characters of these movies fulfills the role of protagonist, but that doesn’t make me any happier with these films.
Hell, in the two films I named above, I couldn’t even cheer for the antagonist, as I did with Alan Rickman’s character in Die Hard (I’ll never be a Bruce Willis fan).
Decades ago, anti-heroes became all the rage (think Clint Eastwood in practically anything), and I thought that worked well. Unforgiven was a great movie.
But somewhere along the line, the world-cynical smarm of the anti-hero turned into two-dimensional self-absorbed slime.
Yes, we are supposed to see the protagonist fall a few pegs as their world collapses around them only to watch them triumph (or not) in the end. If I like the character, my heart bleeds for them at every crisis, at every moment of conflict, whether internal or external.
If I don’t like the character, however, I either don’t care about their knocks or I take sadistic pleasure in it.
On some level, I think it’s lazy writing. Rather than find interesting ways to show the internal humanity of the protagonist through a cloud of jack-assedness, the writer bets the farm on swaying the audience with a massively redemptive climax, where the protagonist makes some life-altering self-sacrifice and does the right thing.
As the reviewer above alludes, however, the writer runs the risk that it’ll be too little too late.
So please, screenwriters, let’s agree. I will try harder and you’ll try harder. It’s win-win.