Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: On Hollywood and Cheating

By  · Published on February 9th, 2010

Editor’s Note: The following article features possible spoilers on Dear John, 2012, Amelia, and The Lovely Bones. You’ve been warned.

I typically save the boiling points for Robert Fure, aiming instead to frame my column as an observation of media rather than a critique, analyzing trends and their meaning in the context of film and television as an intersecting object of commerce and art. But there is something that has been getting under my skin in some films released in the past several months, and it’s the way that Hollywood deals with the subject infidelity. Repeatedly in recent mainstream films, Hollywood shirks away from the potential complexity or diminishing empathetic audience identification that could occur if they portray any of their protagonists cheating. Instead, they either avoid the subject entirely or embrace the clichéd convenience of a supporting character’s death so that a reunion with the potentially cheating couple can occur guilt-free. I find these alternatives to cheating protagonists more bothersome than if they actually allowed a central character to cheat in the first place, and it represents a level of cowardice on behalf filmic storytellers afraid to explore flawed, multidimensional, human characters to such a degree.

Two weeks ago I saw and reviewed Dear John (I think I’m the only Reject who’s seen it, or at least the only one who admits to having seen it). The third act of the film finds the eponymous John (Channing Tatum) returning home from fighting abroad to bury his father, and he encounters his lost, long-distance love Savannah (Amanda Seyfried). Savannah has married since (or rather, resulting in) their long-distance, longhand breakup, and one of the film’s big reveals is that Savannah has not married the bothersome douchebag college friend who flirted with her repeatedly right in front of John’s eyes, but Savannah’s older, much more sympathetic family friend Tim (the underappreciated Henry Thomas) who is now – in typical Nicholas Sparks fashion – hospitalized with terminal cancer.

So the supposed insurmountable obstacle that a couple must go through in every Hollywood romantic comedy or drama – being pulled apart and then thrust back together for little more than the dramatic effect of a third act tied into the idea of distance/separation making the heart grow fonder – is rather easily surmounted by the fact that the man in the way of the couple’s reunion is set to die at any minute. What should be a mountain of conflicting desire – staying loyal to one’s spouse versus reuniting with a true love – is rendered almost irrelevantly insignificant by the easy out of killing the character off. We as an audience are put into this situation for the necessity of drama, but for the sake of simplicity, narrative closure, and fear of creating an unsympathetic (albeit layered) character, Dear John – and many films like it – reduce a mountain into a molehill.

Narrative cheats like this are in no way rare, and numerous examples can be excavated just from films released in the last few months. 2012, for instance, featured amongst its overflowing global and interpersonal conflicts a broken home at its center that must, like the fate of humanity, be restored by the end of the film. But instead of having Amanda Peet confront the fact that she, in the face of death, has realized she must make the difficult decision of allowing herself to fall back in love with her ex-husband, in the process breaking the heart of current husband/boyfriend (?) Tom McCarthy – all of which would make a compelling character moment regarding the wholly different decisions made when faced with extinction (as opposed to everyday life decisions) in what is otherwise a bloated mess of a movie – 2012 instead does what is easiest and most cowardly by killing off McCarthy’s character and having Peet and John Cusack completely forget about him in their embrace five minutes later.

What writers, producers, studio execs, etc. think they have achieved when they make such decisions is to do what is necessary to give the audience what they want (the reunion of the central couple, the affirmation of the nuclear family) and what the story purportedly needs without making its central characters seem like bad people. But what happens in movies like Dear John and (especially) 2012 is that, if such a thing occurred outside the emotionally enraptured, subjectivity-directing world of the film, these characters would come across as opportunistic, heartless bastards. In a way, what Peet and Cusack do in 2012 is in many ways worse than if she simply cheated on McCarthy or left him for Cusack, as it renders the entire existence of McCarthy’s character a meaningless obstacle in way of Peet and Cusack’s inevitable reunion.

In the world of such films, supporting character actors like Henry Thomas and Tom McCarthy have no autonomously important purpose of their own. They turn into cogs in a giant wheel who exist as both the obstacle and the means for the more important central characters to reunite. I left both films feeling far sorrier for these supporting characters than I was happy for the protagonists’ reunion, for what was probably the love of one’s life for the marriages and relationships of these periphery characters is morphed into merely a forgettable, barely significant speed bump for the lives of the main characters.

Even when a Hollywood movie does deal with infidelity, it’s often dealt with kids’ gloves. In last fall’s failed Oscar grab Amelia, Earheart’s cheating is approached with a simplistic three-scene revelation-conflict-reconciliation process that concludes with the married couple holding hands on a beach as if nothing’s happened. We get it, their marriage survived all sorts of conflict, but what is the purpose of introducing infidelity into the narrative if it’s portrayed as having no lasting changes in their marriage? Are we really supposed to believe that everything went back to being the same, with no enduring tensions? Wouldn’t it be more dramatic and interesting if Amelia disappeared during a bumpy patch in their relationship? The film I discussed last week, The Lovely Bones, entirely dismisses an infidelity subplot involving Susie’s mother and the detective that was featured in the book, instead pushing that character out of the narrative and underutilizing the great acting chops of Rachael Weisz. Was Peter Jackson actually afraid of portraying somebody whose teenage daughter has just died as somebody who could afterward make irrational decisions? Instead of giving us a potentially complex and possibly even unlikeable character, Jackson gave us no character at all.

We get it. A cheater does not typically make for a very attractive character. But we need to get over the idea, first of all, that we need likeable characters at the center of every mainstream movie (look at the unrelenting villainy in There Will Be Blood or the magnetic narcissism of Capote). Showing a character making questionable decisions makes them more human, and internal moral dilemmas and moral ambiguity is always more interesting. Nobody can relate to a saint. If the issue of cheating is even alluded to, it should be dealt with consideration of all the complexity and scars involved, not forgotten about, skirted over, or problematically resolved in a simplistic manner. Secondly, filmmakers should understand that sympathy operates differently than empathy. We don’t always have to be supportive of a central character’s decisions, just understand the reasoning behind them. A protagonist can do something absolutely reprehensible in a film, but we will still follow them if we’re given a reason to be invested in them and understand them. We need this character depth not only regarding the specific subject of infidelity; rather the implementation of these practices would make stronger characterization in movies all around. When it comes to narrative shortcuts and quick, simple resolutions, Hollywood needs to get its act together and stop cheating.

Culture Warrior is our weekly walk on the wild side with actual film school graduate Landon Palmer. To read more from Landon, you can follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/landon_speak

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