Tomorrow, the Sacha Baron Cohen-starring, Larry Charles-directed The Dictator opens. Unlike the previous two docu-prank collaborations between Charles and Cohen, the humor of the fully staged Dictator doesn’t so much rely on the reactions of ‘real people’ to an idiosyncratic foreigner as it uses its fish-out-of-water arc to chronicle the pseudo-enlightened changes that its eponymous character experiences (this is all based on the film’s advertising – I have yet to see it). With its riches-to-rags narrative, The Dictator seems to be the newest iteration of a long tradition in Hollywood comedy: the story of the redeemable asshole.
It’s rather appropriate that the teaser trailer for Anchorman 2 will be premiering in front of The Dictator. Will Ferrell has made the redeemable asshole into something of an art form in his collaborations with Adam McKay. Ferrell’s often narcissistic, privileged, ignorant, and empathy-challenged creations should, by any measure of any other genre (audiences are far less tolerant of asshole protags in, say, dramedys) be reviled by audiences. But we ultimately find something redeemable, even lovable, in Ferrell’s jerks, even if this surface-level redemption overshadows the fact that they never quite achieve the level of self-awareness that would actually redeem one from assholedom.
These are characters we would likely avoid in nearly any real-life circumstance, but yet we go see movies about them learning life lessons which add up to little more than common knowledge for the rest of us. The redeemable asshole is often a white male who is conniving, manipulative, entitled, overconfident, and utterly blinded by the massive ego that dictates each and every maneuver articulated through pure self-interest. They’re also damn compelling to watch onscreen. And the Hollywood comedy, it turns out, has quite the history of redeemable assholes.
Cary Grant as C.K. Dexter Haven in The Philadelphia Story (1940)
There are slight variations on Grant’s comedy persona, but his character stays relatively consistent. Haven is an impulsive serial monogamist, a semi-functional alcoholic, and a man who has the gall to turn up to his ex-wife’s wedding in order to win her back – not out of love (at least, not initially) but because of the fact that he’s a man who simply can’t stand to lose. Haven is willing to admit to any insecurities and deficiencies as long as such admissions permit him access to what he wants.
While Grant played more modest protagonists opposite Katherine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby and the brilliant-but-overlooked Holiday (both 1938), Haven seems more consistent with Grant’s characters across genres, from previous comedies like The Awful Truth (1937) to later dramas like Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946). Hell, Grant is the type who would see nothing strange about playing similar entitlement games with a woman half his age more than two decades later. But Haven is one of Grant’s most audacious assholes, a man who has commandeered his charm, calculated vulnerability, and relentless insistence so expertly that, in the end, he not only gets what he wants, but he seems to do so with effortless ease.
Tony Curtis as Joe, Josephine, and Junior in Some Like It Hot (1959)
From the self-destructive alcoholic of The Long Weekend (1945) to the salesman-turned killer in Double Indemnity (1944) to the opportunistic reporter in Ace in the Hole (1951), Billy Wilder proved himself an expert craftsman of the self-interested jerk – but few can challenge the unapologetic self-interestedness of Tony Curtis’s Joe. Appropriately channeling Cary Grant, Joe isn’t content to only lie to the stunning Sugar Cane (Marilyn Monroe) about his gender in order to get a gig, but about his social status as well.
Joe is compulsively dishonest and relentlessly manipulative to the level of sociopathy. As Junior, Joe at one point pretends to be asexual so that Sugar Cane goes to great lengths to give him an erection, while he lies there completely disinterested in exchanging the pleasure he receives. With his multiple lies and rouses within existing layers of dishonesty, it’s hard to ever know who the “real” Joe is. Yet Joe’s one climactic moment of rare honesty lands him the girl as Jack Lemmon’s nice guy finishes last with “nobody’s perfect.”
Michael Caine as Alfie Elkins in Alfie (1966)
No, this isn’t a Hollywood film, but the British have their fair share of engaging assholes, too. However, Alfie more thoroughly explores the “redeemability” factor of this trope. Unlike the kid gloves applied to the Jude Law remake, Caine’s Alfie explores, without hesitation, the consequences of a lifestyle in which one expects everybody to give of themselves without ever giving back in return. Alfie can easily be criticized for being too conservative in finding the “solution” of Alfie’s problem in traditional relationships, but Alfie isn’t as much a film that condemns non-monogamy and sexual freedom as it is a film that uses its protagonist to critique those who roam through adulthood without a sense of responsibility, respect, or empathy.
Yes, Alfie is an asshole because he’s a philanderer who packs up and leaves whenever shit gets real, but he’s also an asshole because he’s rather incapable of listening. There are at least a half dozen characters who give Alfie sage critiques about the way he navigates his lifestyle, but for much of the film the protagonist lends a deaf ear. Alfie is the pinnacle of self-righteous stubbornness, a man totally incapable of seeing the world any way outside of his existing frame of mind. That’s why his largest moment of realization is not witnessing an abortion or humbling himself to a hitchhiker, but witnessing someone else doing exactly what he does.
Gene Wilder as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein in Young Frankenstein (1974)
Mel Brooks often cast Gene Wilder as men who are modest about their exceptional skills, whether that be Leo Bloom’s idiot-savant accountant in The Producers (1968) or the reclusive Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles (1974). Dr. Frankenstein is notably different from these other Brooks/Wilder iterations in that he is a loud, brash, narcissistic academic with a God complex who finds no compunction with literally using others in his drive toward self-affirming success and achievement. He is also hopelessly insecure because of his legacy, never hesitant to correct others on understandable mistakes in pronunciation (“It’s Frank-En-Steen!”).
Of course, one could argue that Wilder’s Dr. Frankenstein is simply a comedic adaptation of Mary Shelly’s original character – both embody the self-destructive hubris of man. However, there’s something particularly insistent about Wilder’s understanding of the doctor (or, rather, the doctor’s son) as a man whose massive personality desperately hides his microscopic sense of self. It’s rather appropriate, then, that the only way Dr. Frankenstein can peacefully lure his creation back is by resorting to the more measured, quiet sounds of a violin.
Chevy Chase as Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983)
Knowing what we do about his behind-the-scenes personality, it’s easy to imagine that Chevy Chase’s asshole characters are more than a little similar to the man himself. But something tells me that his fictional creations are a lot more fun to be around. Unlike the other protagonists listed, Griswold’s redemption is provided at the film’s beginning rather than at the end. Griswold has the best of intentions: to provide an affirming experience and a lasting memory for his family in their journey to a theme park. However, Griswold can’t help but reveal his true character when things don’t go exactly as planned.
Clark Griswold is remarkably quick to resort to the most morally objectionable of options in any given situation, from openly condescending extended family to remorselessly running over a dog to taking money from a hotel cash register to holding a security guard hostage to seriously considering cheating on his wife. For someone who took the time and effort to plan an ambitious family road trip, Griswold has an astoundingly difficult time seeing anything past the immediate moment. Griswold would rather play an ideal family man than actually be one.
Macauly Culkin as Kevin McCallister in Home Alone (1990)
The adults of the McCallister family are neurotic and unforgivably irresponsible. Uncle Frank is a jerk who should be set on fire. But this doesn’t so much excuse young Kevin’s assholery as much as it simply explains it. Kevin McCallister is the spawn that such a family would eventually, inevitably, regrettably birth.
As a child of privilege, he’d rather be in a domestic paradise of material goods and distractions than spend a moment in the outside world. No wonder the worst thing he can possibly imagine is sleeping upstairs. As someone who has never been told to respect others, specifically adults, no wonder Kevin automatically supposes that anyone over sixty is a serial killer. As a kid whose entire world consists of material distractions and who has no capacity for respecting others, no wonder he’d have minimal hesitation in putting Joe Pesci and Daniel Stern through a living hell that’s about two comic stagepieces short of Guantanamo-style torture. Yes, I know they’re robbing your house, but man, that shit is inhumane. I’d honestly expect more empathy from someone in their single digits. But hey, at least you told the old serial killer dude how to make a phone call and got to hug your mom in the end. Asshole.