Just saw this movie. Not sure if it’s in cinemas anymore… or, in other parts of the world like the USA, whether it’s in cinemas yet — Wikipedia says it comes out (pardon the pun) in the USA later this month — but I recommend it.This film has Jim Carrey swerving back and forth across the line of serious and funny, and serves as a reminder that he actually is a pretty damned good actor when he’s given the room to be. Likewise, Ewan McGregor’s acting is also outstanding. I could hear people sobbing in the cinema during a couple of scenes — quite unselfconscious of the fact they were crying over the romantic trials of gay prison convicts — and that’s quite the achievement… even more so for reasons I’ll mention below.
I, too, was also moved by the film momentarily, as much as I was amused: one thing this film is not is some sort of romantic tragedy. It’s comedy, but comedy with heart and, I suspect, brains. Indeed, I think the real value of the film is the questions it leaves you with in the long run, though it doesn’t bash you over the head with those questions.
So even if you don’t watch films in order to be asked to think, though, it’s quite worth it — the story really plays with our expectations, with narrative structure and character arc; it’s not sarcastic, but it does ask us to think about love, about manipulation, and about roles we choose to play. Somehow, as I watched it, I thought of The Meme Machine, that book by Susan Blackmore, not just because of its discussion of how humans are innately imitative (which, in a con man, is a skill that is often hypertrophic!) but also in the odd conclusion she reaches that human identity, even self-observed, is a kind of illusory structure built into the memeplex we all carry around inside. (In other words, the idea that it’s memetic turtles all the way down.)
I’m not sure I buy that completely — though I’d be willing to grant some of it’s true, given what we know of the human mind and its misperception of agency, decision-making, and so on — yet, despite this, doubt, the Stephen Jay Russell character does, it seems to me, force us to confront how much of our own lives is a kind of role-play. Being a professor is one thing, and there’s nothing necessarily “fake” about that, but being A Colleague or An Educator or even A Slavedriver or The Sympathetic Ally… these are positions people take, more or less consciously, to negotiate their relationships, dealing with Colleagues, with Sassy Students, or Hardworking Students, or Students Who Are Trying Hard But Can’t Seem To Make It Work.
It’s not just at work. In a musical ensemble, there are roles people fall into. It happens in families. It happens in circles of friends. Sometimes, I’ll fall into roles quite unlike the one I’d like, but it seems a human tendency — we abhor vacuums much more than nature, social ones especially, and some part of us wants to see them filled. One I tend toward is the critical-appraiser role: when I’m with a group of people who are bemoaning the poor sea animals in the Gulf of Mexico, I tell them my opinion: “Well, I think we don’t have any right to cry till we start doing something about our addiction to oil. I mean, this is what happens when you’re addicted to toxic substances, and let corporations run the world in exchange for them.” Some part of me feels it necessary to point this thing out — much more necessary when nobody in the group is saying anything remotely like it.
Everyone knows how freeing it can be to leave a place, to move to a new city or country, to take a new situation on, or leave an old one behind. I think I first experienced it moving from one school to another, and after a few moves, I even learned how to create a new “persona” to present to strangers in high school, to serve what social needs I had and to act as a bulwark against potential bullies who, of course, always realize that the new kid has no social alliances established.
Fluidity of persona, of role, is a normal thing, but this film, fundamentally, asks us just how fluid can one’s identity become before one is simply not “human” in some fundamental way that most of us believe we are.
And, more interestingly, it has us laughing at what otherwise might be a frightening degree of fluidity in its con-man protagonist. The heart-wrenching dialog that had some members of the audience weeping, after all — is that real, or just role-playing? Did Russell do all the things he did because of love, or because it’s in his nature to do them, and love is a useful justification he adopts as part of the persona he’s built up in his relationship? He seems, from this interview, to be discomfitingly hard to really get a fix on.
Which becomes a mirror: how much of what we do, which we say is for love or family or whatever — putting off dreams, taking or not taking risks, whatever — is likewise something we really do because it’s in our natures? This is a question most people will shrug at, but left alone in a room with that dilemma long enough, I suspect most people will find something to be uncomfortable about. The magic of this film is that it somehow makes it possible to sit in a room with that dilemma and, because it’s someone else’s, and because the things its protagonist does are so insanely audacious, we’re willing to follow through on the implications of the question, and maybe learn something about human nature along the way.