The Wild Bunch

When bad behavior masquerades as bravery

Political correctness is dead, and movies are only now playing catch-up. Or at least, that's how the spin goes. Everything from Woody Allen's post-Mia sourness and the Farrellys' frat-boy transgressions to Quentin Tarantino's blaxploitation kick and Warren Beatty's homeboy posturings--in short, all manner of rudeness, meanness, or grossness perpetrated by straight white men--is being cited as evidence of an anti-p.c. sensibility that has infiltrated Hollywood. The net result is that the vastly different ends of these movies--whether interesting, irksome, or irrelevant--are subsumed under a catch-all catchphrase, united by some hazy, essentially phony notions of candor and courage.

More than anything, the wider anti-p.c. movement, if you can even call it that, is a triumph of media manipulation--a backlash more irrational than the phenomenon to which it's purportedly reacting, and as such, a fundamentally illusory rebellion. When movies start co-opting this faux ideology (or are thought of as doing so), it gets even more ridiculous. Just who are the thought police that the Farrellys are so brazenly defying? What kind of intellectual muzzling was Woody Allen or Warren Beatty ever subjected to? And by flouting the tyranny of liberalism-gone-amok, we're returning to the glory days of... what exactly? Porky's?

And yet, a consensus seems to have formed among pundits and critics that meanness is, in itself, good--brave, honest, somehow different. The Times found Deconstructing Harry "bracingly nasty" and In the Company of Men "fearlessly cruel." The New Yorker capsule review for There's Something About Mary celebrates its "refreshing mean-spiritedness" (even though the movie is surely, in its way, one of the year's sweetest romantic comedies). The trendspotters are onto something--straight white men are acting out--but why is simple antisocial behavior, whether offensive or not, so consistently misdiagnosed as heroism?

The most commercially successful of the recent wave, James L. Brooks's As Good as It Gets, is also the most transparently clueless. Jack Nicholson's racist, sexist, homophobic novelist verbally assaults everyone around him--a single mother and her sick kid, a gay neighbor and his pesky dog, a Latino maid--and then mysteriously comes to his senses. The film is a perfect example of Hollywood wanting it both ways (how can you object to the antihero's obnoxiousness if it's all in the name of redemption?) and getting it all wrong (you can if his behavior is as pointlessly vile--and subsequent rote transformation as absurdly unconvincing--as it is here).

As Good as It Gets also adopts the defense of most anti-p.c. comedies--"equal-opportunity" offensiveness, which basically translates as politically correct political incorrectness, and is every bit as muddleheaded and contradictory a stance as that implies. It's impossible to pull off in any meaningful sense: consider the idiotic Mark Wahlberg vehicle The Big Hit, which assembled a multiethnic cast for no other reason than to diversify its racial-slur hurling. Woody Allen's Deconstructing Harry, with its black and Asian hookers and shrewish Jewish wives, might be thought of as even more equal-op, since Allen's bile is targeted as much at his alter-ego as any of the other characters. Still, this rancor is invariably more convincing when directed outward, and ultimately nullified by the need to justify it.

Warren Beatty's Bulworth makes the most direct connection of any film to date between honesty and the politically incorrect impulse. Jolted out of a suicidal stupor, Beatty's hopelessly compromised senator embarks on a "truth-telling" spree, which consists primarily of racial putdowns and old-left tirades, badly rapped--it's supposed to be cathartic and liberating because it's apparently what people want to hear. Or is it what people have always wanted to say but have been afraid to? More to the point, which people? Beatty told Henry Louis Gates Jr. in the New Yorker, "If I had made [Bulworth] back in 1968... it would have been too politically correct for words," meaning presumably that today's high-irony climate is more conducive to "malt liquor and chicken wing" cracks. Beatty's well-publicized good intentions notwithstanding, tweaking stereotypes can be irresponsible--tantamount to perpetrating them--if both context and execution are confused, as they obviously are in Bulworth.

Good intentions are usually beside the point in the Sundance-incubated strain of anti-p.c., manifest mainly in indies that overestimate their own shock value (not to mention the value of shock per se). Take Don Roos's nicely acted, knowingly rude farce The Opposite of Sex--not so much a movie as a disingenuous pose sustained over 90 minutes. "One of those in-your-face comedies that has audiences laughing, ducking, and not believing their ears," warned delicate flower Roger Ebert. The film's tagline was similarly cautionary: "You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll be offended." The most offensive thing about The Opposite of Sex is its insistence that we take offense at it--as if its impudence was supposed to be fresh or bold or the means to some elusive greater truth. This position becomes even less tenable when it transpires that Roos has almost as conclusive a makeover in mind for Christina Ricci's acerbic teen vamp as Brooks did for Nicholson's latter-day Scrooge.

Few filmmakers--indie or otherwise--are as keen to scandalize as Neil LaBute, whose only two features to date, In the Company of Men and the current Your Friends & Neighbors, are not only calculatedly shocking, but marketed as inflammatory conversation pieces ("Will keep you talking right on through winter," promises an overoptimistic blurb for Friends & Neighbors). Even though he freely admits that his ultimate goal is provocation, LaBute denies that his films trade on shock value alone. "Being shocking for its own sake is relatively useless," he says. "If you just want to shock, you might as well have an actor urinate on the camera. The idea is never to drive the audience out of the theater." He hedges, though, when asked if he thinks his films can be accurately termed anti-p.c. "They're politically ambivalent. I'm really not interested in making statements but in raising questions."

It's hardly surprising that most directors--not wanting to come off preachy or find themselves backed into a corner--resist the anti-p.c. tag. "I don't give a shit about being p.c. or anti-p.c.," says Matt Stone, one half of the South Park / BASEketball duo. "We have our viewpoints, but we don't proselytize: We're just in it to make people laugh." Stone has a point: like the Farrellys, he and his partner, Trey Parker, temper their potty-mouthed tastelessness with giddy absurdism and goofy self-mockery. Besides, to call Something About Maryor BASEketball anti-p.c. misses the point: the new generation of gross-out boys aren't really defining themselves against anything as much as they're reviving a subgenre that self-destructed through overuse.

The most overt (not to say coherent) filmic attack on political correctness came in Dan Rosen's script for the 1996 black comedy The Last Supper, about a group of cartoonishly liberal grad students who invite a succession of cartoonishly bigoted guests to dinner, and kill them if they can't convert them. Supposedly a liberal critique of self-righteous liberalism, the film had all the sophistication of an undergraduate philosophy paper, spinning off one strenuously outrageous scenario after another from a contrived ethical dilemma, which it proceeded to run into the ground.

While The Last Supper aspired to explicit political debate (however rudimentary), most so-called anti-p.c. films operate on a more instinctive level. The archetypal politically incorrect protagonist--agrotesquely attention-seeking, avowedly taboo-busting caricature--is usually a mere plot device: a fall guy waiting to be tripped up by some payback / redemption / combination-of-both situation, or if he gets away scot-free with bad behavior, still something of a scapegoat, forced to reveal some ugly truth or other about the human condition (cheap laughs aplenty along the way, medals for bravery all round).

If the '70s produced memorably ambivalent screen figures and the '80s clear-cut heroes and villains, premillennial movies might be most notable for their mean streak--evident in the proliferation of unsympathetic, even despicable, central characters, in films that, for whatever reason, depend on the viewers' (or the directors') contempt for their characters, that test the limits of what the bad guy (and, by extension, the filmmaker) can get away with. It's not necessarily an invalid stance: still to come this year, there's Todd Solondz's Happiness and Peter Berg's Very Bad Things, both cruel and extreme films, but with very different agendas. The ironic reflex--to laugh and applaud regardless, to be suitably shocked and titillated--precludes intelligent discussion. If we are to get to the root of this nastiness, the first step is to stop mistaking it for bravery.

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