The Year of Selfish Screen Pricks

Conventional screenwriting wisdom holds that you can’t have a successful movie about a selfish asshole main character. Prick personalities should be reserved for minor roles. However, if you do venture into the dangerous waters waters of the egomaniac, make sure you at least redeem your prick at the end. He starts off caring about himself; he ends by seeing his mistake and starting to care about others. That way, we can cheer his rehabilitation. It’s not bad writing advice—except it’s seen at least three major exceptions in 2013: Wolf of Wall Street, Blue Jasmine and Inside Llewyn Davis.

All three of these films are by well known directors, which suggests that it’s easier to do what you want when you’ve already made good films in the past, but that’s hardly a revelation. What’s more revelatory is that all three films are pretty good, and almost hypnotically watchable. You don’t want to look away. Jordan Belfort’s a magnet, Jasmine is a train wreck, and Llewyn Davis’ week sucks, but that’s part of why we want to watch. We don’t really want to see these characters reformed. We want to see them do crazy stuff for our amusement, whether it’s heckling an old woman playing folk songs and getting smashed in the face for it, blowing coke up a hooker’s ass or talking to one’s self in the middle of a street while having flashbacks of a fraudulent past. The filmmakers know this, and they let their characters be. By the end of their respective films, Belfort’s conning people again, Jasmine’s gone off the deep end and forgotten the words to Blue Moon and Davis is stuck in a loop, possibly caused by an addict jazzman’s New Orleans voodoo hex.

Sure, we’ve had self-centered main characters in the past. However, I don’t think we’ve ever had this many unredeemed assholes in this many major films before. In other words, our fascination with screwed up celebrities has finally made its way into the cinema. Incidentally, Wolf of Wall Street, Blue Jasmine and Inside Llewyn Davis all at least dabble in the types of relationship “dramas” that feed TMZ and other gossip outlets: casual cheating, unwanted pregnancies, divorce of the rich and famous…

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