My favorite college screenwriting professor once explained to me the difference between an audience’s sympathy and empathy for a film’s characters. Empathy is a much more complex goal, but it’s the preferred relationship of audience to characters. Sympathy, by contrast, implies a certain type of emotional reaction and connection, a type that possesses little differentiation from something like pity. It implies a psychological separation, a sense of understanding that hardly extends beyond generality. Empathy, however, does not necessitate that one admire, sympathize with, or agree with the decisions of the characters – empathy instead calls for a simple but thorough understanding: knowing who the character is, seeing the decisions they’ve made before, and thus having a firm insight into what possesses such characters to make subsequent decisions. Sympathy, with the necessity for caring and support intrinsic to its definition, requires that the viewer like the characters they see; empathy does not. Empathy requires understanding, not necessarily admiration.
The audience’s need for empathetic, rather than sympathetic, relationship to characters seen onscreen effectively twists one of Hollywood’s unwritten golden rules on its head: protagonists don’t need to be likeable, just understandable. The notion of needing likable characters is a remnant of the regulated traditions of classical Hollywood, as movies made since the modern era of Western cinema have given us many iconic protagonists who do despicable things as par for the course. We as a cinematic culture hardly need heroes in the way they were necessary back in the early 1960s and before – hell, even our superheroes are often broken souls. We’ve traded our John Waynes, our Henry Fondas, and our Jimmy Stewarts for lovable assholes, liars, and fools. But the empathetic boundaries of fallible, unheroic, even antagonistic (and, all the while, probably more realistic) characters remains a continually difficult balance to strike, as one can go too far in one direction or another and easily lose their audience. The recent cinema of Wes Anderson and his occasional creative collaborator Noah Baumbach have encountered an interesting play with the ever-blurry line that retains an audience’s empathy for an unlikeable protagonist.
Anderson’s work is easily identifiable with his visual tics, hip pop scores, and frequent casting of the same troupe of actors, but his films also continuously relive a similar pattern of character development. Anderson’s films basically revolve around the endearing asshole protagonist, as the main characters of each of his films encounter a crisis point in their lives that cause them to seek redemption; however, their arrogance typically prevents them from realizing that inner change is necessary for such redemption. From Owen Wilson’s Dignan to Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer to Gene Hackman’s Royal Tenenbaum to Bill Murray’s Steve Zissou to Mr. Fox, each of Anderson’s characters set out to bend others to their own will, while not realizing that they too must give in return. Most of Anderson’s characters, lead and supporting, have passed some perceived prime of life – a prime that as they remember it may never have actually existed – and seek out one last hurrah or grand accomplishment that is typically not realized, so Anderson’s protagonists are not only assholes, but often failures as well, always embodying character traits that remain far from heroism.
But perhaps most telling key to understanding the psychology of Anderson’s protagonists is that in each and every one of his films they seem to be self-consciously acting out their own story of redemption, as if they were actually aware they are in a movie that manifests such a transition. However, the movie that Anderson’s characters imagine in their head realizes itself quite differently than what we see on screen. Their inflated egos allow them to think they are on a road to redemption and emerge victorious heroes at the end, yet they remain grown-up children who fall into existential crisis whenever events don’t play out as envisioned and who never really change or find this ill-deserved site of redemption. One of the major signs of appeal in Anderson’s work is the way he dances across the line between the hero story/character study and his twisted, less Hollywood-ending version of it. In Anderson’s films, the protagonist and antagonist are often one in the same as these characters wrestle with the disparity between who they want to be and who they actually are.
It helps that his bastards are loveable – funny, clever, eccentric, and realized by great actors. But the potential problem that arises in his characterization is when the asshole nature of his characters is disguised as something else or when it isn’t counterbalanced or questioned. The Darjeeling Limited, for instance, features three competing typical Anderson protagonists without supporting characters around to be offended or hurt by their selfishness as in the ensembles of The Royal Tenenebaums and The Life Aquatic, so their asshole nature goes unchecked and it becomes implicit that Anderson himself may not adopt the perspective that these characters are as offensive as they ulrimately come across. Anderson’s characters delicately walk the tightrope of empathy.
While Baumbach has been involved in independent filmmaking for some time, this analysis will focus on the characters who have occupied his films since his career breakthrough with 2005’s The Squid and the Whale. Baumbach’s films have a more confrontational relationship with the parameters of empathy than do Anderson’s. They can’t always accurately be called endearing assholes, and in many cases they defy such attempts at labels. Where the blow from the pompous nature of Anderson’s protagonists is lessened by his sometimes overwhelming aesthetic palette and audiovisual signifiers of hipster culture, Baumbach’s formal choices often make his characters’ (to say the least) questionable decision-making skills come across as all the more harmful and disturbing.
Where Anderson’s protagonists are people you would simply try to avoid in real life but ultimately tolerate, Baumbach’s stories are those of toxic people, the type of people that give you the highest highs and sink you to the lowest lows in your life, the type of people you vow never to speak to again, only to do so at 3am the following day. The most venomous, of course, are the parents in his films. Jeff Daniels’s Bernard Berkman and Nicole Kidman’s Margot are spiteful and self-involved black holes of insecurity, and it’s amazing that their children turn out so believably smarter than they are, but it is the fact that they are parents of young children that ensures that they will never be truly alone even when the fellow adults in their lives have rejected them, the neuroses of their off-spring standing as collateral damage to the most selfish reason to pursue parenthood. Some of the things these parents say are so wounding that they potentially take one out of the movie (and for the many who hated Margot at the Wedding, this was certainly the case), but Baumbach’s characters are such a product of the environment around them and they so authoritatively embody the torrid and dysfunctional relationships we think we have had with our loved ones to the point that his characters remain empathetic, watchable, and interesting not despite these shortcomings, but because of them.
This is why I’m surprised at the backlash to Baumbach’s most recent protagonist, Roger Greenberg. Greenberg’s Greenberg is such the opposite of a cinematic hero that even the word antihero doesn’t apply to him, and while his self-involved nature and middle-class crisis does make him a post-Gen-X continuation of Baumbach’s protagonists, he isn’t near as caustic or as repellent as any of them, going nowhere near Bernard’s villainy or Margot’s extreme hate. Greenberg, like all of Baumbach’s films, contains a non-role model protagonist without a black-and-white moral compass, something existent in the every day but also something far too seen with this type of relentlessness in American independent cinema. Baumbach’s films can occasionally force a harrowing, dicomfiting look into the mirror, and they aren’t for everybody, but they are fervent in their conviction. The grown-up children of Noah Baumbach may dance more liberally across the parameters of empathy, sometimes seemingly not caring to achieve audience empathy at all, but free from the bells and whistles of Wes Anderson’s aesthetic, Baumbach’s characters resonate as more challenging, unrepentant, and startlingly real.