When I worked at the policed department in police records, I used to play a game as I transcribed the writings of various cops. It was called ‘Spot the Stupid Person’. I have this theory that in every crime there is at least one stupid person. Whether it’s the bank robber who wrote a note on the back of his own deposit slip or the teenage runaway who gets in a stranger’s van, there’s always at least one stupid act involved.
So last night I watched most of a movie called Alpha Dog. It was on cable and my wife wanted to see it because it has Justin Timberlake in it. There was a black hole of nothing on television last night so there it was. The vast majority of the movie had a bunch of teenage and twenty-something drug dealers, drug users, and gangsta wannabes posturing about how tough or cool they were. One guy owes another guy money and so they kidnap his little brother, but it’s never a plan. They don’t ever say, ‘Okay this is what we’re going to do.’ Instead it just sort of happens. And not all of the wannabes like this idea but they go along with it because…..um….well…they are stupid.
Usually in any given crime drama I can play a variation of ‘spot the stupid person’, but the problem with Alpha Dog is that there wasn’t one stupid person. They were all stupid. It was amazing in that there wasn’t one smart character in the entire movie. I’m not talking about people who make bad decisions based on a lack of intelligence. I mean the sort of dumbasses that always took the fun out of a good party. These were always the guys who’d start fights for no reason or start smoking pot in the front yard as a cop drove by. And they’re exactly the sort of people that I simply don’t have the time or energy to endure any more than I have to. So I got up and went to another room but before I did, I said, “I bet the Elvis character kills the kid”. (When the movie was over my wife told me I was right.)
Now I’m sure there are people who might say that this movie had a predictable plot with stupid characters because it was based on a true story about some stupid people who did predictably stupid things, but that doesn’t excuse it. Just because something really happened doesn’t mean it’s automatically a good story. (If it did, then James Frey might have told the truth when he wrote A Million Little Pieces.) The fact of the matter is stupid characters ruin a good story.
Forrest Gump was not stupid. He was simple. Simple can be charming. Simple can be entertaining. Rain Man was simple. Stupid characters make for bad storytelling for a number of reasons. Both Gump and Rain Man have a logic to their thoughts. Stupid people don’t. Stupid is just stupid. There’s this idea that in order to care about the characters in a story you have to redeem them in some way. This isn’t true though. You can’t just have ‘bad people doing bad things’. This isn’t true though. What you need to do is explain their intelligence. It’s okay if they aren’t brilliant. It’s not okay if they’re just stupid.
Think of your favorite movie. Who is your favorite character in that movie? I’m willing to bet it’s a character with at least a little smarts.