Monday, December 23, 2013

The Family Man: Growing Good

Every once and awhile I can annoy one of my friends enough that he'll watch a show a movie I've been raving about. The past couple of weeks has been one of those victories, as my friend finally binge-watched The Walking Dead and texted me his thoughts. He was most impressed with Shane and The Governor, the two main villains of the series so far, summarizing his thoughts:
"Contemporary media is so much better at portraying evil than it is at portraying good."
The observation is astute. As a culture, we're kind of obsessed with evil characters, at least on television. A few recent villain-cum protagonists are Dexter's Dexter, House of Card's Francis Underwood, and, of course, Breaking Bad's Walter White. They share similar personalities and plots, and viewers rally around them for some reason, hoping for their redemption. The question is why? Why are we, as a culture, so good at portraying evil and so ready to embrace evil characters? It's a topic so worth of heavy consideration that I intended to sit on for awhile.

Then I saw Nicolas Cage's 2000 Christmas drama The Family Man. The story of Cage's every-man Jack Campbell is nearly the same as Bryan Cranston's White, right down to the cynicism towards American empire-building, Capitalism, and living to maximize your own talents and desires. The similarities between the two made my viewing of the movie equally as uncomfortable as my viewing of the show--and revealed the answer to my friend's question.

Whereas White turns himself from a family man into the king of a meth empire, Campbell starts at the top of the finance mountain and works his way down it. He's the president of a company who lives in a Penthouse on Wall Street and thinks he has everything he needs. The only "problem," according to the movie's universe, is that he lives alone and is so wrapped up with work that he calls for an emergency strategy meeting for a $130 billion merger on Christmas Day. One chance meeting with a magical Don Cheadle and Campbell finds himself where White was in the first episode of Breaking Bad (minus the cancer).

In the suburbs of New Jersey, Campbell wakes up on Christmas morning in bed with his college sweetheart and current wife Kate, a character so close to Skyler (White's wife), I would've thought she was ripoff if not for the fact that this movie was released nearly a decade before the series about meth-making. Lacking memories of his marriage and the two children that came as a result of it, Campbell rushes into the city to return to the life he knows, only to be thrown out of his apartment and office buildings because the doorman don't recognize him. Magic Cheadle confronts him again, telling him he must accept his situation and learn from it.

What Campbell learns from the situation is what makes the movie so disturbing. The difference between his lives is extreme. His neatly organized and modern penthouse has been replaced with a messy, chaotic suburban home. His challenging and exhilarating job has been replaced with a retail sales position at Kate's father's tire and auto-parts store. His free time is spent participating in a sport he hates, bowling. This issue isn't of kind, it's of quality. If the movie portrayed a man learning the values in a different type of life (which it may have been trying to), it'd likely be enjoyable. Instead it portrays a man learning to accept a life well below what he desires in exchange for love.

The most revealing scene in the movie follows Campbell's hard-fought effort to regain elements of his empire-conquering life. His other-life-boss randomly ends up in the tire shop and Campbell sweet talks his way into a job. He then brings Kate to the city and reveals his plan to move there, double both their incomes, and send their children to private schools where they'll receive a better education--a completely reasonable proposition. The family would stay together and have an improved quality of life.

Kate doesn't respond as if it is reasonable at all. In true Skyler style, she hysterically objects to Campbell's plea, demanding he explain why he'd want to rip their daughter from the school she loves and doesn't care that she pictured them growing old in that house in New Jersey together. Campbell attempts to argue, but eventually acquiesces for some reason I forget.

The rest of the movie progresses predictably. Campbell comes to love his family and  realize he's lonely, wakes up in his real life, and rushes to pursue a still-single Kate. It's all lovey-dovey rom-commie (pun intended) and meant to demonstrate that the character has finally become good. In fact, he even spurns the emergency strategy meeting (and trip to Aspen to woo the merge partner) to reveal his loneliness to the love-of-his life. At this point the plot is propelling purely on emotion because if you stopped and examined Campbell's situation, you'd realize that he's throwing away a life that stimulates and challenges him in favor of the life that literally destroys everything he prides himself on (unnecessarily!) in favor of someone else's (namely Kate's) happiness.

That realization reveals a hidden definition of "good:" suffering for the sake of the people you love--and no one with an ounce of self-respect would enjoy watching a character who allows himself to suffer unnecessarily. The Family Man likely only survived on the fumes of love and the Christmas spirit of giving, two things which can be enjoyed without harming yourself. Breaking Bad thrived on White's self-empowerment. Though it was ultimately used to kill and corrupt in a misguided quest for wealth and power, viewers witnessed a defeated man attempting to break free of the straps his wife (and other circumstances) had tied him with. In that sense, White's end was much more victorious than Campbell's.

The reason contemporary media can't portray their definition of good is no one would watch. Watching someone intentionally lose is too painful and depressing of an experience. Imagine a Die Hard where John McLane has to sacrifice his life at the end to prove to his wife he's not a jerk, a 300 where Leonidas agrees to kneel to Xerxes to stop the bloodshed, and a Man of Steel where Superman gives himself over to Zod for the greater good of the Kryptonian people. If any of these heroes did as I described, they'd be throwing away what they think is right in favor of someone else's worldview.

I'm not suggesting what makes a character good is sticking to his ideas no matter what. That stubbornness can quickly turn any hero into a villain. Rather, sticking to the right ideas no matter what makes a character good. McClane refuses to die because doing so would see the elitist robbers get away with the money, Leonidas won't kneel because doing so would mean accepting an oppressive dictatorship, and Superman won't surrender to Zod because doing so would mean the end of a world and culture based on self-determination and freedom.

In Breaking Bad, White turns evil because his bitterness towards to the world causes him to embrace an any mean's necessary approach in building a meth empire. In The Family Man, Campbell turns "good" because his newly found loneliness causes him to embrace an any mean's necessary approach (which includes flouting the empire he built) in pursuing Kate.

Like Two-Face, these characters two sides to the same coin, and if we flip it, there's no real difference. Either way, we lose.

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