Antagonist as Protagonist

The “center and eccentrics” format is one of the conventions of television sitcoms. A typical “C&E” construct features a reasonable, rational and (mostly) self-aware star surrounded by a constellation of eccentric and dissolute nut-jobs. Jerry Seinfeld on Seinfeld was the center of his retinue of eccentrics;  ditto for Tiny Fey in 30 Rock, Ray Romano on—you get the idea. Perhaps because aspiring feature writers watch lots of sitcoms, they often embrace the center-and-eccentrics paradigm.  Feature films, however, have a different character calculus that allows for a morally flawed,  internally conflicted protagonist to function—on rare occasions—as his or her own chief antagonist. The duality of that choice presents the writer with a host of delights and challenges.

Some prominent examples of this syndrome in recent films include Pat (played by Bradley Cooper) in Silver Linings Playbook, Mavis (played by Charlize Theron) in Young Adult, and the iconic weathercaster Phil Collins (Bil Murray) in Groundhog Day. In my opinion, no writing team has ever met that particular challenge better than Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks did in their Oscar-nominated screenplay As Good As It Gets. 

Screenwriters have certainly depicted neuroses aplenty; they have made great sport of the crippling phobias that plague the human condition (Howard Hughes and his germ aversion in The Aviator, Jimmy Stewart’s acrophobia in Vertigo come to mind). But in the antagonist/protagonist Melvin Udall, Andrus and Brooks have created not just a neurotic multiphobe, but also a gay-bashing, card-carrying misanthrope. Oh—and lest I forget, Udall also has a narcissitic streak as wide as the Hudson River. You could argue that, in piling on the character flaws, Andrus and Brooks overshot the mark. In their conception of Udall, the writers have deprived their audience of that ever-important “rooting interest”—that is, a sentimental hope that Udall and and the single mother/waitress Carol (Helen Hunt) would wind up together.

Rather, As Good As It Gets gives us about 80 pages of adversity, antipathy, and—well, this:

ZOE

How do you write women so well?

MELVIN

First, I think of a man. Then I take away reason and accountability. 

Or perhaps this gay-bashing rant instigated when Melvin’s neighbor, Simon, interrupts his writing session:

MELVIN

Do you like to be interrupted when you are nancing around in your little garden?

SIMON

No…actually, I even shut the phone off and put a little piece of cardboard in the ringer so no one can just buzz me from…

MELVIN

Well, I work all the time. So never, never again interrupt me, okay? I mean, never. Not if there’s a fire. Not even if you hear a thud from inside my home and a week later there’s a smell from in there that can only come from a decaying body and you have to hold a hanky against you face because the stench is so thick you think you’re going to faint even then don’t come knocking or, if it’s election night and you’re excited and want to celebrate because some fudge-packer you dated has been elected the first queer president of the United States…and he’s going to put you up in Camp David and you want to share the moment with someone…don’t knock…not on this door. Not for anything. Got me, sweetheart?   

If you were to pitch such a character in a development meeting, the rational response, the rebuttal would be that this character could portray the villain, or perhaps a glimmer of comic relief. But promoting Melvin Udall to leading man status in a romantic comedy is madness. The audience would never buy it.

And yet, they did. Of course, it helped enormously that Jack Nicholson signed on to play Melvin Udall. But the success of As Good As It Gets (Seven Oscar nominations; three Golden Globes) didn’t solely turn on Nicholson’s Academy Award-winning performance. Melvin is so very clever, so acerbic in his wit that the audience finds itself in trainwreck mode—we simply can’t look away. What elevated this script and made it credible was a combination of some delightfully caustic dialogue contrasted by the humanity and temperance of the supporting characters.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pbI6qTih2TI]

The Carol Connelly character in As Good is the opposite side of this coin. As a struggling single mother, oozing compassion, she becomes our rooting interest in the story. The more we learn about her, the more we want all good things for Carol. It doesn’t occur to Carol until quite late in the film that what she may actually need is this compulsive, reflexively inappropriate man. The romantic denoument in As Good As It Gets is not inevitable. It’s not even likely. But in the context of what we have learned about these characters it has a kind of goofy, gratifying logic.

What we have in this rich and resonant story is basically the center and eccentrics format tipped on its ear. Melvin is the damaged goods, the central source of conflict and dismay. Carol, along with supporting characters like Simon and gallery owner Frank Sachs (played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.) represent the simple virtues that have eluded Melvin. Collectively, they help Melvin reach one of the most improbable epiphanies in the history of film.

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