Monday, March 17, 2008

Smart People, or How I wonder where all the good academic role-models are...

I recently caught the trailer for the Sundance comedy Smart People and while I really want to see it (Sarah Jessica Parker! Ellen Page! Ned from Ned & Stacey! Julianne's Homo-Husband!) I was left with this odd sensation... are academics (mis)represented on the silver screen?

Let us look at the trailer and maybe we'll understand what I am getting at:

First thing I thought after watching the trailer (actually second, first one was: Juno and Carrie?! Yay!) was: "Here we go, yet again another disgruntled, bitter, socially awkward academic." I couldn't help but being reminded of Noah Baumbach's The Squid and the Whale (or how as I like to call it: "The Movie That Shows Me What Type of Person/Academic I Do Not Want To Become") where Jeff Daniels' Bernard Berkman is a self-obsessed, pendatic, pretentious, socially and fillially (is that even a word?) ignorant... tool (for lack of a better word) who epitomises everything I er... don't like about this "Industry" (read: Academia).

Case in point:
Bernard: Ivan is fine but he's not a serious guy, he's a philistine.
Frank: What's a philistine?
Bernard: It's a guy who doesn't care about books and interesting films and things. Your mother's brother Ned is also a philistine.
Frank: Then I'm a philistine.
Bernard: No, you're interested in books and things.
Frank: [pause] No, I'm a philistine.

I mean sure, Quaid's Lawrence Wetherhold probably won't be as ascerbic as Baumbach's character, but he does seem to continue a retinue of 'Bitter Academic' roles that seem poised to become as trite as, say, the 'Grieving Wife/Mother' type in biopics or the 'Naive Waif' type in any Austen-esque modern chick-flick. Not that there are many movies featuring academics (really, one has to wonder why.../rolls eyes/) but it does seem that when academics are portrayed on screen they either get the inspirational treatment (think of mentally ill characters such as Russel's in A Beautiful Mind or Dame Judi's in Iris) OR the bitter treatment (think academic-ey writers like Meryl in Adaptation, Michael D in Wonder Boys, Steve C in Little Miss Sunshine, Mr Burton in Who's Afraid of Viriginia Woolf?) the latter treatment being much more pervasive - save for that random Harrison Ford character, or that Tom Hanks character from that best-selling novel (though Sir Ian could add a somewhat similar name to this eclectic list).
I have not done extensive research, but I do wonder why and how is it that Academics find themselves confined to these type of roles - unlikable, unapproachable, socially stunted, self-absorbed pedants...
Can anyone think of more examples? (Maybe some that will prove this entire post wrong? Please?)


Vance said...

That's why I choose not to be smart.

(Did you like Squid and the Whale? I usually LOVE those "type" of movies but I found it to be every indie movie cliche thrown into one and I kinda hated it for being a retreat of every "issue" they could fit in)

Taz said...

What about Neeson as Kinsey? Granted its a biopic...

Sarah said...

Well I dunno, I thought Michael Douglas's character in "Wonder Boys" was actually pretty empathetic...also, what do you think about Robin Williams in "Good Will Hunting"? Trying to help be positive!!

- Sarah G.

.philip said...

Case in point: the Savages. Philip Seymour Hoffman as dysfunctional Brechtian drama professor. He knows Brecht, but can he deal with real life? Another example would be Half Nelson (not a college academic, but close enough)

I'm having a had time coming up with examples to prove you wrong, and the only ones I can come up with are the overtly sentimental ones like Dead Poets' Society.

However, maybe the stereotype is true in this instance?