In Defense of Cinema's Skeptical Characters

Let's engage in a little role-playing.  You're in a fabulously old and glamorous European city. Your significant other, already neurotic, has becoming increasingly twitchy and melodramatic. He or she is also spiraling deeper into syrupy romanticism about the past, and a persistent belief that if they just lived in this European city, they would be a better artist or person.

Out of the blue, they come to you, excited. They insist they actually slipped into the past and wined and dined with artistic and literary greats.  "I went to the pub with William Shakespeare and picked his brain!  Come with me, and I'll show you!"

Would you, sturdy and skeptical reader, actually believe them? Or would you have them examined by a medical professional?  Failing that, would you leave them?

The truth, my sturdy and reality-dwelling readers, is that you would probably pick options two and three. Like it or not, we would all be Rachel McAdams in Midnight in Paris.

Movies have a funny way of demonizing the serious, sane, and rational. McAdams is the latest victim of this goofy plot device. While she's truly unlikable for many reasons (rude, insipid, materialistic, shallow, stupid – and thus enamored with Michael Sheen's intellectual blowhard – and unfaithful), I can't exactly blame her for failing to believe Owen Wilson's breathless belief in time travel.   I've seen a lot of viewers damning her for her stubborn refusal to believe in Magic, insisting they would, and I want to shake them all and say "You lie!" Wilson is erratic, almost manic, for much of the film. He seems like the man on the verge of a nervous breakdown caused by his inability to complete his novel.  I know I'd leave him on that damp street corner, and so would you. It's the one aspect of her character we shouldn't hate on. Why should she believe his drinks with F. Scott Fitzgerald are anything but latent schizophrenia?

Let's shake up the scenario. You're a waitress, and you're good friends with a nice, ordinary girl named Sara. One day she starts raving about killer robots, the War Against the Machines, and insisting her son (whose father has gone missing) will be the savior of mankind. Do you believe her?

What if your husband, and father to your three children, begins missing work, staring at the sky,  living in his bathrobe, and sculpting a mountain out of mashed potatoes?  One day, he completely snaps, and starts throwing shrubbery and chicken wire into your kitchen window.  Do you stay with the kids, and believe his unhinged insistence on alien visitation?

Or hey, you're a dad who has lost his wife in tragic circumstances and your farm is failing. Your kid finds a reindeer and insists it belongs to Santa. Do you pack up your things, rent a trailer, and drive to the North Pole. Of course you don't!

I don't like to admit this about myself. None of us do. We all want to believe we would believe the lead character's frantic, sweaty insistence in time travel, ghosts, aliens, the end of the world, terminators, or the conspiracy to kill the president. Many of us even have some belief in paranormal activity. I, a hardened skeptic in most aspects of my life, firmly believe in ghosts.  I even have a theory – based on my limited understanding of physics – to back it up.  But if a husband came to me insisting our house was haunted, and digging up the floorboards to prove it, I'd be back at my parents quicker than you can say Kevin Bacon in Stir of Echoes.  (It's not that I wouldn't believe we had a ghost, but let's put out a tape recorder first for heaven's sake!)

We've seen enough movies, after all, and we would know they were telling the truth. Also, we're creative and sensitive people, and would never doubt our loved ones. Why would they invent something like that? They wouldn't. It has to be true. Come on, why can't these characters believe him/her? They're so awful and hateful!

No, they're not. They're normal. And they haven't seen The Terminator, Midnight in Paris, or Close Encounters of the Third Kind, so they have no frame of reference for their loved one's madness.

But even if you did have those movies as a point of reference, you would be no quicker to buy into your loved one's tales. If my (hypothetical) child came to me and said "Mommy! I found an alien in the backyard and he's my friend!", I would probably say "That's great, honey, is his name E.T.?"  "Yes, just like the movie!" I would smile inwardly and assume my child was carried away by their love of the movie, and their desire for their own E.T. I would tell them to wash their hands, and sit down to dinner.  Eventually, this would probably come back to kick my butt because my child really would have an alien, and surprise!  It's more like the Xenomorph than Steven Spielberg's squishy toadstool, and we should have killed it while it was still small and vulnerable.

But that's the price of rationality, isn't it? And we all are – despite our sturdy believe in our own inner romanticism – way too practical, pressed for time (I'm far too busy to wait around for them to prove it to me, or to travel to Washington D.C. just in case they're right about that thing with the president), and unimaginative to buy into wild tales of hanging with Hemingway.

So, let's go easy on those "shrill" wives and girlfriends, "mean" dads, and dismissive friends and colleagues, and cold, uncaring medical professionals and policemen. They're not the villains cinema wants us to root against -- they're us, and it's disturbing how much we clamor for their blood. Maybe we -- and scriptwriters -- could go a little easy on them, and  give them some solid proof before completely dismissing them out of the plot.