Is having likable characters overemphasized?

Discussion in 'Movies' started by Cameron Yee, Mar 25, 2004.

  1. Cameron Yee

    Cameron Yee Executive Producer
    Reviewer

    Joined:
    May 9, 2002
    Messages:
    11,828
    Likes Received:
    720
    Trophy Points:
    9,110
    Location:
    Since 2006
    Real Name:
    Cameron Yee
    Listening to Ken Lonergan's commentary on "You Can Count On Me" he makes a statement to that effect. I've read many negative reviews that say "Not a likable character in the bunch." So how important to you is it to have characters you find "likable?"

    In maybe an extreme example, a friend of mine has problems enjoying a movie with an obvious anti-hero (e.g. "The Limey").
     
  2. Jason Seaver

    Jason Seaver Lead Actor

    Joined:
    Jun 30, 1997
    Messages:
    9,306
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Well, if they're not "likable", then they'd darn well better be more interesting or charismatic. I saw a movie this past Sunday (Past Perfect; check the alternathread or blog) where the two main characters actively irritated me for the first half-hour or so. Now, in a movie theater, the director could get away with this - it's dark and I'm not going to disturb other people (or forfeit my ticket price!) by trying to leave, but at home, unless I feel a compelling reason to spend time with these people, I may not feel a need to keep watching after fifteen minutes.
     
  3. george kaplan

    george kaplan Executive Producer

    Joined:
    Mar 14, 2001
    Messages:
    13,063
    Likes Received:
    2
    Trophy Points:
    0
    I don't think there need to be likable characters exactly, but if the film only has irritating or obnoxious characters, then, like Jason said, there'd better be something else redeeming about the film.

    For example, I don't particularly find any of the characters in The Godfather likable, but they aren't irritating, and they are interesting, and even charasmatic in a sick sort of way. [​IMG]

    There's nobody in Double Indemnity I'd like to hang out with, but again, the characters don't actively irritate me.

    On the other hand, characters like Blanche DuBois in Streetcar, or Catherine in Jules & Jim aren't just unlikeable, but downright irritating as hell, and that ruins a movie for me.
     
  4. Sean Moon

    Sean Moon Cinematographer

    Joined:
    Jan 25, 2001
    Messages:
    2,041
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    There is likable then there is charasmatic and interesting. Likable characters are always a plus, but to me they are not necessary. There needs to be a part of a character that you identify with in some way, shape, or form for them to work. Or for them to have a plight or issue you can relate to or speaks to you.

    Godfather is a good example. There is not one likable character in the bunch, but they are interesting. They have a set of rules they live by, and that is interesting. Memento did not have many likable characters. Seriously, would you want Leonard Shelby as a friend? I wouldnt, but his story is compelling and interesting and has something that everyone can identify with, a need for justice.
     
  5. Nate Anderson

    Nate Anderson Screenwriter

    Joined:
    Jan 18, 2001
    Messages:
    1,152
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    I suppose the character doesn't have to be likable, but like others said, there has to be a compelling reason for me to want to spend 90-120 minutes with them...
     
  6. Casey Trowbridg

    Casey Trowbridg Lead Actor

    Joined:
    Apr 22, 2003
    Messages:
    9,209
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0

    I agree, I want to be able to relate to a character or find a character interesting even if I don't particularly like them. I might not find someone in a film to root for, but I might find someone to root against which if done right may be just as engaging, but if they're not interesting I don't care.

    I kind of relate this to something I once heard a professional wrestler say, I don't care if they cheer me, or if they boo me just as long as they do something. The idea being is that its better for a character to get a negative reaction than none at all. However, like George said there are characters that irratate me so much that I just can't take it anymore, you know?

    IMO, interesting is more important than likeable.
     
  7. Holadem

    Holadem Lead Actor

    Joined:
    Nov 4, 2000
    Messages:
    8,967
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    I agree as well. Two movies that were ruined for me by characters that I actively detested: Rushmore, and The Hidden Fortress (those clowns). Election may also qualify. I may revisit the Hidden Fortress, but I couldn't stomach another minute of that obnoxious dork in Rushmore.

    I love You Can Count on Me btw, and find the brother and the kid very likeable.

    In the end, likeability is very important to me, because it helps to relate (or is it the other way around?).

    --
    H
     
  8. george kaplan

    george kaplan Executive Producer

    Joined:
    Mar 14, 2001
    Messages:
    13,063
    Likes Received:
    2
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Holadem,

    I agree with you completely on Rushmore, though I realize we're in the minority. Bill Murray might have been a redeeming feature of that movie, but nowhere near enough to make up for a lead character with no redeeming features whatsoever.
     
  9. Alex Spindler

    Alex Spindler Producer

    Joined:
    Jan 23, 2000
    Messages:
    3,971
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    See, and Rushmore is the very movie I was going to bring up as a movie I love without having 'likeable' characters. All of the characters are selfish and, at times, actively abrasive to each other. But they are endlessly fascinating to me, which is why I love the film so much.

    That the protagonist is loaded with self serving ambition but not aided by same kind of audience endearing qualities you often find in films (be it talent, exceptional intelligence, or hidden skills) makes it so special to me.


    I firmly believe that movies that are going to be broadly accepted almost have to have 'likeable' characters. 'Interesting' characters, such as the rascistand villainous William Cutting, are a tougher sell to a general audience. Even if it had a better story, I don't think GoNY would have reached a wide audience because of its characters (who again I find very interesting and held my attention long after the film was over).
     
  10. Clay D. Major

    Joined:
    Feb 16, 2004
    Messages:
    30
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Interesting thread, and something I've studied in film since college. I wrote a paper for my film class on GOODFELLAS and its lack of a standard protagonist; talk about an egregious group of people. Funny that I've never made the same association with THE GODFATHER ... maybe that's a testament to the depth of its character development and Michael's struggle against -- and then ruthless adherence to -- the Family Code. GOODFELLAS lacked entirely the sense of honor that comes with That Business of Theirs; and yet it is an overwhelmingly popular film.

    One of my favorite examples of this phenomenon is also one of my All-Time Favorite films: GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS. Not a one of those miserable bastards is 'likeable' in the traditional sense (Alan Arkin's run-down George Aaronow is the only truly sympathetic sap in the bunch, but his willingness to be trod upon reduces his Likeability Quotient considerably), and the transformation Pacino's Ricky Roma makes between the first and second act nearly breaks your heart, given how desperately you want to like someone. Truly a classic film, and yet no protagonist.

    Another favorite of mine -- high on the Rewatchable Factor, any time it's on cable I'm hooked -- is Mel Gibson's PAYBACK, whose own slugline is "Get ready to root for the badguy." Paramount's marketing knew right away what they had, and sold it accordingly. Love that film.

    Great thread, thanks!
     
  11. Cameron Yee

    Cameron Yee Executive Producer
    Reviewer

    Joined:
    May 9, 2002
    Messages:
    11,828
    Likes Received:
    720
    Trophy Points:
    9,110
    Location:
    Since 2006
    Real Name:
    Cameron Yee
    I enjoyed Rushmore and so did my friend who has the antihero/unlikeablity issue. I think for her it comes down to whether she can sympathize with the characters. I haven't seen the Limey in awhile, but it's at the top of her list of intolerable films because of the a/immorality of the main character.

    I was somewhat surprised that neither she nor her husband enjoyed Lost In Translation. I don't know if it really came down to the likeability factor of the characters, though there was some mention of it in their comments. Frankly I think both characters were likeable and sympathetic, so I might have misunderstood their comments. I personally enjoyed the film because I could firmly relate to the two core situations presented - being in a strange place with no friends and randomly meeting someone and sharing a more than conventional connection, albeit briefly.
     
  12. Stephen_L

    Stephen_L Supporting Actor

    Joined:
    Mar 1, 2001
    Messages:
    534
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Personally, I don't need characters I like, but I want characters I care about or can empathize with. There is also a special allure to the outstanding villain. I've seem so many movies where the villains of the piece, while not admirable or empathetic were utterly riveting and the entire reason I love the film. "Dangerous Liasons" with Glenn Close and John Malkovich is a classic example. The two leads are a pair of intelligent, depraved, duplicitous snakes whose driving passion is easing their boredom by destroying other people. There are sympathetic characters in the film (the stunning Michelle Pfeifer and Uma Therman) but I watch Close and Malkovich.
     
  13. Ray H

    Ray H Producer

    Joined:
    Jun 13, 2002
    Messages:
    3,482
    Likes Received:
    16
    Trophy Points:
    610
    Location:
    NJ
    Real Name:
    Ray
    Characters that are "likeable" in the sense of being moral and good people might be overemphsized. But definitely not a character someone could like in the sense of someone you can relate to.

    It's not a movie but for example, on Curb Your Enthusiasm, the main character is an asshole, but he's still likeable. [​IMG]
     
  14. Dome Vongvises

    Dome Vongvises Lead Actor

    Joined:
    May 13, 2001
    Messages:
    8,172
    Likes Received:
    1
    Trophy Points:
    0


    I agree with this statement, and I think the examples of The Godfather characters are perfect.

    On the other hand, I absolutely hate characters that are neither likable, charismatic, nor compelling to watch. I hate characters with weak constitutions and dumbasses. Now that's irritating.

    I'm surprised people find the guy from Rushmore irritating. I think he's a likable jackass. [​IMG]

    Edit: The only problem I had with Scarlett Johanssen's character was how uptight she was. I get irritated by "I'm better than you" people. My only superior is Superman.
     
  15. Jason Seaver

    Jason Seaver Lead Actor

    Joined:
    Jun 30, 1997
    Messages:
    9,306
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Well, there is that seven bucks you paid for your ticket. [​IMG]

    Actually, my conclusion at the end of Past Perfect was that these characters I did not like much at all and who made me keep looking at the clock, hoping this was only a ninety minute movie (the Brattle actually has a working clock in the auditorium), were in fact somewhat interesting and there was a decent story told with them.

    I think it's an underappreciated part of the difference between a movie theater and home theater. A movie in the theater is allowed to start slow, and perhaps be irritating, with characters who rub you the wrong way. But, since you're "stuck" there without a remote, you let them develop. I remember The Spanish Prisoner annoyed me at the start, as an example, but had sucked me in by the end.
     
  16. Jan Strnad

    Jan Strnad Screenwriter

    Joined:
    Jan 1, 1999
    Messages:
    1,004
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    I believe the key is empathy...is there something in the character that resonates with you? Also, I think of Raymond Chandler's statement about "the detective," that he needs to be the best person in his world...not perfect, not even likeable, but the best person in a world that is often very dark.

    Was Jack Nicholson "likeable" in Chinatown? What about Malcolm MacDowell in A Clockwork Orange? Not the best people, certainly, but everyone else is even more despicable, and they both had something a viewer could empathize with.

    IMHO, the main sin a character can commit is to be boring.

    Jan
     
  17. Cees Alons

    Cees Alons Moderator
    Moderator

    Joined:
    Jul 31, 1997
    Messages:
    19,449
    Likes Received:
    337
    Trophy Points:
    9,110
    Real Name:
    Cees Alons
    Good point, Holadem.
    I think it could be both. If a character is likeable, you may more readily be interested in their problems. If the problems they're faced with (perhaps partly caused by their character) interests you, you may start to feel some sympathy with the character.

    In both cases, I think being able to relate to one or more of the protagonists is necessary to hold your attention, make you think about it.

    And, Cameron, as a result, The Limey didn't have an unsympathetic main character for me. And especially the conclusion - and his decision when he realizes that - totally redeems him in that respect. Apparently a/immoral he is not! His daughter was murdered, he wants to know why (and possibly have the revenge the law cannot distribute in this case) but that knowledge will shock him. Psychologically a very strong movie (we know he also feels responsible for growing her up to the life she went on leading).

    (BTW, part of that film's attraction stems from the ongoing and deadly underestimation of the character by those would-be gangster types. As in the classic westerns, they invariably start a fight, shoot first so to say, and in fact then don't stand a chance. Giving rise to at least two or three hilarious, or at least very rewarding, scenes.)

    So, if you replace 'likeable' with 'relatable' in the question, I'd say: no!


    Cees
     
  18. JohnRice

    JohnRice Lead Actor

    Joined:
    Jun 20, 2000
    Messages:
    9,127
    Likes Received:
    332
    Trophy Points:
    9,110
    Real Name:
    John
    I don't think I feel a need to have likeable characters or even characters I can relate to. For example, take Requiem for a Dream. I'm not suure there is a single character in that movie who is actually "good" and I also don't think there are any I can really relate to very much. A personal favorite of mine is State of Grace and there is only one redeemable character (Robin Wright as Kathleen) in the whole thing.

    What I know I do like is good character studies and both of those definitely have that. It also seems pretty obvious that the characters need to be interesting. otherwise, why watch the movie?
     
  19. Nathan V

    Nathan V Supporting Actor

    Joined:
    Jul 16, 2002
    Messages:
    960
    Likes Received:
    0
    Trophy Points:
    0
    Tony Montana.
    Travis Bickle.
    Wolfgang A. Mozart.
    William Munny.
    Jake LaMotta.
    Hannibal Lecter.

    No, I don't think "likability" has anyhting to do with it. [​IMG]
     

Share This Page