(SPOILERS: The 40 Year-Old Virgin, Little Miss Sunshine, Up in the Air, American Beauty)
We don’t talk about theme in Hollywood much, but every movie has some kind of philosophical subject, even if it’s just good vs. evil. You can deepen your story and provide a more meaningful experience for your viewers without sacrificing entertainment value if you explore a complex theme in a way that is not didactic. One of the best ways to do this is by giving different supporting characters different points of view on the thematic topic of your story. This will not only add intellectual and emotional depth to your story, it will help you develop interesting supporting characters and insert conflict into your scenes as points of view conflict.
This approach is one of the reasons why the screenplay for The 40 Year Old Virgin (written by Judd Apatow & Steve Carrell) was nominated for an award from the WGA. The thematic subject of The 40 Year Old Virgin is, obviously, sex. Notice how each of Andy’s friends holds a different take on the topic: David is still hung up on an old girlfriend and has an over romanticized view of sex, Jay is in a relationship but cheats because he is afraid of monogamy, and Cal just likes any kind of freaky, no-strings-attached sex. These views interact with Andy's anxieties about sexuality in a way that makes the movie more complex than a simple "losing his virginity" story.
The theme of Little Miss Sunshine (written by Michael Arndt) is success and failure. Richard believes the world is made up of winners and losers, and commitment is how you become a winner. Sheryll, on the other hand, believes everyone just needs to be practical and take care of their responsibilities. Grandpa doesn’t care about success, he advises everyone to just enjoy life. Olive loves the process of preparing for competition. Dwayne represents someone who does everything in their power to achieve a goal, only to be foiled by something out of their control. And Frank has given up on life altogether. Each character takes a different approach to the question of success and failure, allowing the film to explore the theme from different perspectives.
The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Little Miss Sunshine are ensemble movies, but the same technique can be used in movies with a strong central character who is going on an emotional journey. The theme of Up in the Air (screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner) is relationship. The main character, Ryan Bingham, believes that relationships weigh you down. He goes through life avoiding any kind of attachment. But over the course of the movie this point of view is challenged by Ryan's experiences and the characters around him.
Natalie, the young woman Ryan is forced to train, longs to be married but has unrealistically high expectations. Alex, a woman Ryan is sleeping with, seems to share Ryan’s point of view but we later learn she’s leading a double life – trying to have it both ways. We get additional perspectives from Ryan’s siblings when he goes back home for his sister’s marriage. The bride and groom are perfect for each other, and though there lives aren’t fantastic (there’s intimations of considerable financial difficulty), they are happy. Meanwhile we get an even different perspective from Ryan’s other sister who has just separated from her husband.
Each of these characters allows us (and Ryan) to view the question of whether relationships are good or bad from a different perspective without implicit discussion (though that sometimes occurs). And the movie doesn't shy away from things that reinforce Ryan's original position.
Dealing with theme is tricky. You don’t want your story to come off preachy. Characters should have good, justifiable reasons for their point of view. And it’s much better if they demonstrate their point of view through their actions, rather than through debate and argument. Watching characters debate philosophy is not a recipe for engaging storytelling!
In the beginning of American Beauty (written by Alan Ball), the main character, Lester, is doing what a middle aged family man is supposed to do in the suburbs. He works at his job, provides for his family...and is thoroughly miserable. Over the course of the movie we see Lester abandon his concern for what others think of him and be true to his own desires. This manifests itself in both positive and negative ways. He quits his stultifying job but there is some question if he can sustain his new lifestyle financially. He gets in shape and starts to enjoy himself by buying a car he wants and smoking pot. But he also pursues an immoral and inappropriate attraction to an underage girl. Ultimately Lester finds balance between honoring who he is and being responsible.
The minor characters illuminate this theme of individuality and conformity. For example, Caroline is the embodiment of the suburban image. Maintaining that image has become her entire purpose as shown by her carefully coordinated dinners and attention to landscaping. And being accepted and “normal” makes her happy. Meanwhile Ricky has abandoned any need for acceptance or normalcy. He is an outsider and proud of it. This attitude grows out of the dysfunction and inauthenticity we see from his family life.
Angela is one of the most interesting supporting characters from a thematic point of view. She constantly talks about her various conquests and sexual experiences. Of course we learn at the end that she's been making it all up. She's a virgin. We also learn that Angela's biggest fear is being ordinary. It's when Ricky insists she is just ordinary that Angela works up the nerve to actually sleep with Lester. It's an attempt to be special. Angela doesn't want to be just another suburban girl, but the pressure to conform has forced her to seek distinction by pretending to fulfill a stereotype - the sex object.
The most important thing to keep in mind when assigning thematic points of view to your characters is to make sure they are human beings, not bumper stickers. Give them fully fleshed out lives, human desires and foibles, so that we get caught up emotionally in their story.
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