Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Hollywood Jerk: A Field Guide

I recently watched Up in the Air, which pretty much everyone agrees is one of the best movies of 2009. It was great, but I couldn't help feeling disquieted during much of it for reasons I couldn't quite grasp.

I grasped them later: It was a Hollywood Jerk movie.

It's difficult to explain what a Hollywood Jerk movie is, because the genre can be nebulous, but I'll do my best. Basically, if you see a character in a major-studio film who is financially successful or has lots of sex, that character will invariably be shown as having an empty, emotionally shallow life. They are a Hollywood Jerk, and they can only be redeemed by a one or more of the following actions: (a) finding a romantic partner with whom they will spend the rest of their life, because single people are losers (b) giving up their horrible, high-paying jobs, because lawyers and businesspeople who travel a lot are missing out on real life, and (c) rushing to see their child's baseball game or piano recital.

I'm not saying that Hollywood Jerk movies are always bad. They can often be excellent, and lately films like Up in the Air have been injecting new subtlety and ideas into them. (Up in the Air takes such unexpected and nuanced turns late that it can hardly be considered a Hollywood Jerk film at all.) But the cliches that can be found routinely in them have spread to every corner of filmdom. The Hollywood Jerk can appear, magically, in any genre. They can most often be found in romantic comedies, such as Sweet Home Alabama, but can also be found in dramas, such as Regarding Henry; broad comedies, such as Liar, Liar; raunchy comedies, such as Wedding Crashers; or even thrillers, such as Phone Booth. (Side note: Regarding Henry has been deservedly forgotten, but I'd like to point out that a studio actually financed and produced a film about a mean lawyer who only becomes nice after he is shot in the head and suffers horrific brain trauma. THAT IS ACTUALLY THE PLOT OF THE MOVIE.)

Here are some ways to spot a Hollywood Jerk.

1) They wear nice clothes. The easiest way to spot a Hollywood Jerk is by their clothing. The male will be wearing a suit, especially one with a loud, brightly colored tie, and will be carrying a briefcase, which will contain papers that his child will later finger-paint on, teaching the male the importance of Not Taking Things Too Seriously. The female will be wearing some sort of power suit, and her hair will be highly stylized so that later in the movie she will let it down, revealing that women do not actually need to style their hair to be beautiful. (Side note: Yes, they do.) Both sexes will frequently be walking quickly through an office building and be talking at a comical pace into a cellphone, because only powerful people who have lost touch with their emotions do this. Powerless people who have the wisdom to love only use land lines, making calls with old-timey rotary telephones or, in a pinch, Sports Illustrated phones that are shaped like footballs.

2) They have high-powered jobs. Hollywood Jerks, whether male or female are almost always lawyers or businessmen. This tells you instantly that the jerk in question is cold, calculating, focused on material gain and seemingly incapable of love. Later in the film, they will tell their boss off, usually in spectacular fashion during a Big Board Meeting Around a Polished Wood Desk, then quit to go do what they've always dreamed of, such as being a carny or selling a unique brand of chainsaw art.

3) They miss their kids' recitals, birthdays and/or baseball games. The Hollywood Jerk reveals his jerkiness in several ways - using hair spray, for example, or having money - but there is no more revealing one than putting their career first. This frequently manifests itself when the jerk in question misses a crucial day in his son or daughter's life. If it's a son, it was almost always be a baseball game, because god knows, the average youth baseball player only plays 26 times a week, and missing one of those games means Billy will grow up to prostitute himself out behind the bus station; if it's a daughter, it will almost always be a musical performance of some kind, and she will search in vain for her father's attentive face in mid-performance, an act that would cause her to fall into the orchestra pit in real life. The lowest of the Hollywood Jerk, though, will miss his son or daughter's birthday, and they will look really sad when they blow out the candles. Later in the film, the main character will have to resolve some sort of crisis, then rush like an ambulance driver to make it in time for their kid's event, which will then erase all the prior years of neglect.

4) They have attractive sexual partners.
If you settle in to watch a mainstream movie and the main character has sex that actually looks fun, be suspicious, because you are probably in the presence of a Hollywood Jerk. Having vigorous sex with one or more attractive partners may look fun, but as Tom Cruise learned in Jerry Maguire and Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson learned in Wedding Crashers, it's actually a sign that you live a meaningless life. Later, the sex will be soft-lit and occasionally punctuated with wry, funny comments to show the characters Don't Take Themselves Too Seriously Anymore.