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Why fascinating creeps trump the good guys, every time

Michael Cera, right, and Gaby Hoffmann appear in the film Crystal Fairy. The film casts the mild-mannered Cera as an insensitive, drug-addled traveller trying the patience of Chilean locals.

The Canadian Press/Handout

There's not much to like about Jamie and Jasmine. The former, a high-seeking American in Chile played by Michael Cera in Crystal Fairy, is a selfish, impatient and manipulative knob minus an editing function, and the latter, played by Cate Blanchett in Woody Allen's Blue Jasmine, an insufferably superior Park Avenue exile whose new-found poverty leaves her hopelessly and helplessly adrift in an ordinary world she detests.

Yet we can't stop watching either of them. Jamie is fascinating because he never lets up. He's an industrial-strength need machine oblivious to the toxic effect he has on just about everyone he comes in contact with, and the joy in watching him comes from this relentlessness. Every time he walks into a room, we wait to see just how long it will take for him to clear it. Jasmine is a more tragic character, yet her utter inability to adapt to her new stripped-down circumstances, combined with her strenuous efforts to deny reality, render her similarly magnetic. The sheer effort of reupholstering her past to excuse her present lends her a quality of almost neurotic heroism.

For the most part, these are characters who defy that fundamental screenwriting 101 principle that characters must change, and presumably for the better, in order to engage our interest. Jamie may come to a kind of reckoning of his own thoughtlessness when one of the members of his Chilean hallucinogenic excursion goes missing after he insults her, but we're left with little doubt that, minutes after we leave him (alone) at the final credits, he'll be driving people around him over the hills and far away. And while Jasmine changes, it's into an even sadder, lonelier and more desperate prisoner of delusion than when we first met her.

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In much of what passes for common wisdom regarding movies and their audiences, the belief is clung to that we can't care about people we don't like. It's an old bromide and it's based on the principle that unless lead characters represent idealized versions of ourselves, we simply won't tolerate them. This appears to be the thinking behind the considerable embellishments in Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station, which depicts the last day in the life of the 22-year-old Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), who was shot by police on an Oakland subway platform. The movie strains well beyond the call of narrative necessity in order to make Grant as sweet a man as possible, implying in the effort that his death might somehow be less tragic if he weren't such a fundamentally nice guy.

Not true, of course, and indicative of a fundamental misreading of what makes us want to watch fictional movie characters in the first place: whether positive or negative, they do things we, in our real lives, never get to do, and our fascination is based in observing extremes engaged with and pursued, and not reflecting our own experience.

In this day, when television customarily takes risks commercial movies shun – itself a kind of pop cultural 180 – dubiously motivated characters thrive: think of Tony Soprano, Louis C.K., Walter White in Breaking Bad, Carrie Mathison in Homeland, two-thirds of the cast of The Wire, anyone wearing leather in Sons of Anarchy, Don Draper in Mad Men, the titular character of Nurse Jackie, Nucky Thompson in Boardwalk Empire, half the characters in Game of Thrones. The remarkable thing about this bumper crop of rotten-to-the-core bad apples is not just that they defy most conventional ideas of good behaviour, but that they do so in episodic increments: we keep coming back just to see how awful they'll be this week. And here's our driving hope: that it will be worse than last week.

For this viewer, a fascinating creep beats a wholesome role model any day, and I welcome the Jamies and Jasmines of the movie world with open arms and bated breath. I'm of an age where my movie fixation kicked in during the 1970s, a period now widely recognized as one of Hollywood's most exceptional decades, and when the sheer disarray of a collapsing post-countercultural studio system let all manner of ugliness crawl in. When I think of the imperiously evil Michael Corleone in The Godfather, any of the characters played by Robert De Niro for Martin Scorsese, the dozens of morally malfunctioning people populating Robert Altman movies, Popeye Doyle in The French Connection, Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces, all of Stanley Kubrick's protagonists, I think of the magnetic attraction of people doing their worst.

It's only Hollywood that has so strenuously insisted that people only like movies with likeable people. Step outside that system and that country and scoundrels abound. Or just watch TV. But perhaps this is changing. If the brief history of the 21st century has taught us anything, it's that evil, greed, violence and deception are alive and thriving in the world, and our movies can either reflect that reality or do what Jamie and Jasmine do: pretend everything outside themselves just doesn't exist.

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