Two movies are out on DVD today that have one thing in common: truly unsympathetic protagonists, people you would not want to spend more than five minutes with if you ran into them in real life. Surprisingly, however, I liked both of these movies very much: Greenberg, in which Ben Stiller is one of the most consistently off-putting characters ever onscreen; and Harmony and Me, in which Justin Rice's whiny, melodramatic title character practically leaks self-pity wherever he goes.
There's something to be said for a great movie with a grating character you want to strangle, who just plain drives you nuts. For one thing, it's a refreshing change from the supposedly unlikeable character who ends up just being a big old softy by the end of the film, and gets all sentimental or changes his/her ways. It's a challenge to have a horrible character that an audience can still somehow sympathize with, and although it's risky I find it quite rewarding to watch.
So here are seven characters that might be fascinating to watch, but that you could not possibly stand to spend any time with, and may not even be able to stand watching onscreen. Nonetheless, they appear in seven movies that are widely considered good (even if I don't like a couple of them myself). Bernard Berkman (Jeff Daniels), The Squid and the Whale
Writer/director Noah Baumbach has a talent for presenting us with simply awful people who nonetheless are fascinating and even occasionally sympathetic. He's also the filmmaker behind Greenberg. I have a theory that the title character in Greenberg is actually Jesse Eisenberg's character from The Squid and the Whale, all grown up. But it's Daniels' father character in this movie that is truly horrible at times. He's unable to be a successful writer anymore and he's taking it out on his family, especially his ex-wife, who turns out to be achieving some success in that field herself. One scene that especially sticks in my mind is Eisenberg and his high-school date out at dinner with Daniels ... who then adds up how much everyone at the table owes. What kind of parent does that?
Dixon Steele (Humphrey Bogart), In a Lonely Place
Many of Bogart's characters seem unappealing or unsympathetic at first, but the idea is that we break down the character's hard shell and find out that he's really a rank sentimentalist, or a romantic, or just plain insane or something. One of my favorite performances of his is in Nicholas Ray's 1950 drama In a Lonely Place -- his character shows glimpses of a vulnerable, even tender side, but is still chilling, violently angry and even repellent throughout the film. It's easy to see why his writer character might be accused of murder; more difficult to see why Gloria Grahame's character falls for him.
Kym (Anne Hathaway), Rachel Getting Married
Like Roger Greenberg, Kym has an excuse for her unpleasant behavior -- it's tied in with a mental disorder, and in fact she's just been released from a mental-health facility. Still, one suspects that no matter what her psychological state of health might be, Kym is never someone you'll want to invite to dinner. To paraphrase Stephen King's novel The Stand, being around her is like biting on tinfoil. Unfortunately, since her sister is getting married, she pretty much has to be around for the wedding, and we get to watch her family try to deal with her attempts to fit back into a "normal" routine. Anne Hathaway has never yet been better -- or harder to watch.
Bobby Dupea (Jack Nicholson), Five Easy Pieces
Nicholson's abrasive character travels from one class of society to another during the film, but changes very little. Frankly, he's a real jerk -- a snob to his blue-collar friends, a cynical critic of his upper-class patrician family. Well, it was 1970, and a lot of people felt empathy with a character who didn't know where he fit in, and felt the rules that society had established were chafing him. I can sympathize with him myself, but it's without ever liking him, and sometimes I just want to tell him to suck it up and deal with it, dude. Perhaps that's why this is such a good movie. Nicholson has a knack for playing unlikeable characters well, and I like it best when they're undiluted by moments of sentiment or self-doubt, as in About Schmidt.
Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis), There Will Be Blood
I was torn about whether to include Plainview on this list -- he may be the protagonist of There Will Be Blood, but he's also the villain -- monstrous, in fact. It's as if someone remade Chinatown to focus on Eli Cross, or more aptly, remade Giant to focus on Jett Rink. Plainview in the beginning of the film is merely determined and ambitious, then a ruthless businessman who reminded me of development execs trying to tell you why a big-box store in your neighborhood is a good thing. But as the film progresses, it's fascinating to see him become less and less human, and lose any shreds of sympathy or understanding we might have had for him early in the film. Of all the characters on this list, he's the one I'd most enjoy having dinner with ... but boy, I would absolutely be watching my back.
Rupert Pupkin (Robert De Niro), The King of Comedy
I can think of several films that I'd love to include on this list with the notation that every single character in them is difficult to watch, unsympathetic, and just plain horrible. Martin Scorsese's 1982 film The King of Comedy is one of them. Sandra Bernhard's character makes me feel the same way as fingernails down a chalkboard, and Jerry Lewis is just obnoxious. But Rupert Pupkin manages to be creepy, ambitious in a really stupid way, and downright annoying. Like several of the other actors on this list, De Niro is brilliant at playing repellent characters -- Rupert Pupkin goes hand-in-hand with Travis Bickle from Scorsese's Taxi Driver -- and I considered putting Jake La Motta from Raging Bull (also Scorsese) on this list instead. But Pupkin is even more of a loser than the other two characters, and yet one you'd rather kick than help.
Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn), Breakfast at Tiffany's
Okay, true confession time: I have never made it all the way through a screening of Breakfast at Tiffany's. Go ahead and send me to Film Critic Jail. I have two points in my defense: Mickey Rooney's unwatchable, racist portrayal of a Japanese character, which makes me amazed that this movie is still shown in public places or on TV at all; and Holly Golightly herself, who is so incredibly annoying that I want to run screaming out of the room. The only thing about her I can stand is her wardrobe. I don't know if her character improves by the end of the movie and frankly I don't care. She's too horrible, and this is from someone who loves many gratuitously flaky heroines in films like Bringing Up Baby and The Awful Truth. Admittedly, as I've grown older I've realized that I'm not fond of Audrey Hepburn's acting style, and that's probably prejudicing me as well.