January 15, 2015
On Quirkiness and How It Can Affect a Film
One of my favorite comedies is Dennis Dugan’s Brain Donors from 1992. The film is a fresh take on the Marx Brothers seminal film A Night at the Opera, and like that film, it takes three rather quirky characters and situates them in a world in which they are the outliers. The lead character, Roland T, Flakfizer, is played by John Turturro, and his performance is a tribute to the late Groucho Marx – he even has Groucho’s signature cigar. The comedy comes as a result of the inevitable clash between the oddball lead characters and the “normal” people that surround them, and its finale is one of the funniest I’ve ever seen. The film is an example of successful modern-day slapstick, and the quirkiness of its lead characters seems perfectly acceptable for a film of this genre.
There are other examples of quirkiness being used successfully in films. The Naked Gun films take place in a world that seems replete with nothing but oddball characters, and it is the characters’ very peculiarity that makes them so much fun to watch. There are also films in which otherwise normal characters display quirky characteristics. In The Big Picture, Kevin Bacon plays a young director/screenwriter with a rather vivid imagination; in As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson’s quirkiness comes from his obsessive-compulsive behavior; and in The Caveman’s Valentine, Samuel L. Jackson’s much darker quirkiness is the result of his having had a severe mental breakdown. Into this group of films, we could also add The Fisher King, many of the films of Buster Keaton, and more recent films such as Francis Ha and A Coffee in Berlin, films in which the characters’ quirkiness put them in danger of either completely withdrawing from society or being left behind by it. One could even argue that all of Marvel’s superheroes, especially Tony Stark, each display at least one or two quirks.
So just what is cinematic quirkiness, and just why is it so prevalent in films? First, in a general sense, quirkiness is the presence of personality traits that by themselves distinguish characters from other ones. It is the eccentric behavior displayed by such characters as Julius Kelp in Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor, many of whom seem to be quirky for no apparent reason at all. It also explains the behavior shown by know–it-all social misfits or recluses. These characters may talk in high-pitched voices, use overly-exaggerated expressions, and try too hard to fit in with the “cool” crowd. Think Brendan Fraser’s characters in 2000’s Bedazzled. The eccentricity of these characters makes them unique from other ones; it is intended to make them more memorable. It may also give viewers a special peak inside someone’s heads, to provide just a little more insight into what makes them tick. Done well, quirkiness can be highly effective and add to the viewer’s moviegoing experience.
However, quirkiness can be a double-edged sword, for while it can create laughs and make a film more involving, when it is misused, it can strain a film’s credibility. What are we to make of the zany worlds depicted in many of Wes Anderson’s films or the oddity of most of the characters in Aki Kaurismaki’s The Man Without a Past? To many people, the eccentricity in these films acts as a barrier preventing them from completely accepting or relating to the story being presented. There was less of an obstacle to Anderson’s 2009 film The Fantastic Mr. Fox. Perhaps quirkiness can more readily be accepted in a world of make-believe. I recently watched Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, and while I like it a great deal, I couldn’t help feeling emotionally unattached to it, somewhat similar to the way I felt while watching Raising Arizona and Burn Before Reading. Without some footing in reality, it can feel that we are seeing eccentricity for eccentricities’ sake.
Another place where eccentricity is commonplace in films is Asia. It is one of the staples of comedy, and the films of Jackie Chan and Stephen Chow are filled with it. In Japanese films, quirkiness can lead to isolation and ridicule because it makes one person stand out from the crown and not in a way that garners praise. However, usually the quirky one is redeemed in the end, and society comes around. A good example of this is Masayuki Suo’s Shall We Dance.
Here, in Taiwan, quirkiness is often found in the personalities of lead characters, and it is through their quirkiness that audiences learn just how special, humorous, or odd they are. Tom Lin’s Starry Starry Night uses quirkiness effectively, for through it we see the characters’ isolation, as well as the vivid imagination with which they use to escape reality. A less successful use of quirkiness is Arvin Chen’s 2013 drama Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow, a well-intended film that gets sidetracked slightly by its insistence on including comedy in what should be a very dramatic film. In the film, an engaged woman abandons her fiancée in a grocery store, not because she realizes she doesn’t want to marry him, but because she has a sudden revelation that this is what she’ll be doing for the rest of her life, and the independent, free-spirited person inside her won’t accept that. Is it believable? Somewhat. Later, this same character sits on a couch talking to a character from a Korean drama that she is watching. Believable? Not for a minute. One could argue that these scenes are meant to convey her unrealistic expectations of men, expectations partly caused by seeing “perfect” boyfriends on television dramas. If this is indeed the case, it could have been made clear much more simply. Just show her watching television, sighing, and then saying to herself, “Why can my guy be like that?” Done.
The film also has a grand time exploring the eccentricities of the man she left in Aisle 4. See, he’s an engineer, and there’s a running gag in this part of the world about engineer’s lack of romantic tendencies. So, the film depicts him standing outside her apartment in Hawaiian clothing, handing her two tickets to Hawaii, and then telling her all of the times when he is unable to go. Is it funny? Somewhat. Realistic? Not at all. In fact, it is likely to make viewers wonder what she saw in him in the first place, something the film- to its detriment - does not even attempt to explore.
Quirkiness also plays a part in Hou Chi Jan’s recent film, When a Wolf Falls in Love with a Sheep. In that film, both lead characters are given quirks that stretch credibility. The film’s male protagonist has a job in which one of his responsibilities is to clear out abandoned lockers. However, instead of just performing this simple task, he tries to find the objects’ owners and return them. Why? Because he believes memories should not be discarded so easily. Not entirely realistic, but at least it’s a likeable quirk. The female protagonist’s quirk is something entirely different. She takes jobs but only keeps them for 100 days. Why? Because years earlier she got the impression that if something doesn’t happen before you count to 100, then it’s not going to happen ever. In what world would this ever make sense? It’s just the sort of quirk than only a screenwriter looking too hard for something symbolic could come up with.
It is not that I am against quirkiness as a characteristic, but if someone is going to do something quirky or unusual, the most the audience should expect is that it is believable and meaningful. If a character is going to stare at a tree and then pose like it, the audience should be able to recognize this as part of her personality and learn something from it. Otherwise, quirkiness exists for the sake of creating cheap laughs and odd visuals. Sometimes it works, but all too often, it is a distraction – and an unnecessary one at that.