Having been the really big little movie of a year or so ago, Juno (2007) hardly needs another review and so, other than to say I liked it a lot and consider it one of the better movies of the last few years, I’m not going to review it.
But I’d like to muse a while on something Juno does that I think is very difficult to do and very uncommon. It’s a movie about nice people. In fact, to the best of my recollection, everyone in the movie is a nice person. How do you make a movie about a nice guy (or gal)? And how do you make one where every character is a nice person?
Bad guy roles are often the ones actors (and directors) like to get a hold of: it’s much more interesting and, I suspect, easier to play. There’s more to work with because there is more to explore, or so it seems. Not to take anything away from Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker in The Dark Knight, but there are more ways into and more avenues to examine in a character like that as opposed to, for example, Victor Navorkski (Tom Hanks) in The Terminal.
So I have a fascination with movies that feature “nice guys” – at least, those where I think the movies, and particularly the roles, work. For example and comparison, look at one of the nice guy roles in a movie like The Core (2003), Bruce Greenwood as Cmdr. Robert Iverson. It’s about as colourless and bland as you could imagine. Yet with few, if any, opportunities, Greenwood makes him one of the more interesting and compelling characters in the movie. No, it’s not a huge role – the character is a minor one.
Now look at the thankless role Bill Pullman has as President of the United States in Independence Day (1996). In that case, the role is equally bland, there is just as little to work with and what ends up on screen is bland. In both cases the “nice guy” is supposed to be interesting because he’s heroic – and that’s just about all. Yet Greenwood manages, somehow, to find some shading to make his character a bit more than cardboard.
In most movies, nice guy heroes are pretty one dimensional. What goes on around them is what engages, if it engages at all, and often what surrounds them and grabs us is the bad guy, or at least the troubled character. Heroes are often, in these cases, “troubled” – they have some character flaw because, well, they’re darned boring otherwise (see Bruce Willis as John McClane in Die Hard.
How, then, do movies like Juno or The Terminal manage to make good stories that feature nice people?
For one thing, they are romantic comedies. In those movies, while there may be a “bad guy” kind of character – a spouse, significant other, a boss etc. – the movie’s drama isn’t the conflict with “the bad guy” but situational, between two nice people. We want the conflict resolved so the two of them can get together.
But it seems to me that when a movie that features nice people works best it is almost always ensemble work. Yes, one or two characters are the focus, but the movie is hugely dependent on the characters surrounding them – almost always other nice people. (Think of those classic Hollywood movies like The Philadelphia Story or My Man Godfrey or Sabrina.)
As much as Ellen Page as Juno is the focus of Juno, and as good as her performance is, the movie is nothing without the ensemble – Paulie, Juno’s parents, the adopting couple, Juno’s friends. And they all share in common, with Juno, “niceness” and (for lack of a better word), quirkiness.
While we refer to it as quirkiness, however, is it really? I suppose so but, in the movies that work, it’s also character – there are reasons for the quirky behaviour. I can’t imagine anyone, anywhere not having distinct characteristics without being a blank slate.
Everyone we know has characteristics like this. Usually, the closer we are to someone – a friend, a family member – the more aware we are of their unique characteristics. It’s often what we love about them (and what we find annoying, at the same time). In movies, however, they are sometimes emphasized, or at least focused upon, because they lend themselves to humour and more importantly to character.
In a movie like The Station Agent (2003), it’s a small ensemble – just three, really. But that’s what makes the movie work – three nice people and each distinguished by their unique characteristics.
In a certain sense, you could say the successful portrayal of niceness is always (as far as I know) communal. While there are characters that are the film’s focus, it’s the community that supports them and the community – the ensemble – we’re drawn to, and this communal aspect is something romantic comedies do very, very well.
And it’s all so nice.