Ranging from the pitiable to the subversive, the manchild has become a fixture in popular culture over the past ten years. Even framed in a narrative that forces them to grow up, like Seth Rogen in “Knocked Up,” the gaze upon them is uncritical. Losers, on the other hand, are immediately less palatable though on the surface they share a lot of character attributes with the man-child. Losers are often unlikable and confront audiences with unhappy truths rather than coddle them with the reassurance that everything will be okay.
It should be no surprise that the Locarno International Film Festival showcases losers rather than manchildren, fulfilling the festival’s mandate to challenge rather than to patronize. Framed against retrospectives devoted to Sam Peckinpah and Michael Cimino, whose movies are loaded with problematic but engaged masculinity, the American loser was in many ways an unheralded centerpiece to this year’s edition. Where manchild movies, as Steve Rose wrote in the Guardian, reassure viewers that “the so-called grown-up world is one big con,” movies about losers attack our conception of the American dream.
In Josh Bond’s feature debut, “James White,” Christopher Abbott’s character can’t get his life together. His loving and caring nature are undermined by his personal failures. He’s a thirty-something unemployed New Yorker caring for his mother, who is relapsing with an aggressive form of cancer. His life is stalled in part by his care for his mother, but he’s not a particularly reliable son. More often than not he’s in bed, phone on fire with calls and texts because he’s slept in, leaving his mother alone and unable to take care for herself.
While “James White” remains fairly straightforward and palatable, “Entertainment,” the new film from Rick Alverson is an affront to audience expectations; it’s no more conventionally entertaining than Alverson’s “The Comedy” was a comedy. “Entertainment” focuses on a traveling comedian, based on the cult character known as Neil Hamburger, created by Gregg Turkington. While Hamburger has found renown through his collaborations with Tim and Eric, and success in the U.S.’s hipper comedy scenes , Alverson transforms this ironic hack into a tragic figure of detachment and American resignation. He is not a loser in the same sense as James White but embodies a sort of failed commitment to the real world — one that Alverson twists to reflect the troubled American identity.
In both films, loserdom is defined by a cyclical nature and an inability to move forward. Both characters are defined by absent family members and a trajectory that does not encourage personal growth. For James White, that is his absent father and his mother’s disease, which thrusts him continually into instability. In the case of Neil, his incessant touring and solemn calls to a daughter who never answers the phone mark a man without growth.
“James White” is more straightforward in addressing its character’s flaws, a fairly conventional film that transcends a feel-good conclusion because it doesn’t reassure the audience that everything will be all right. “Entertainment” is a bit more difficult to stomach because it doesn’t adopt a straightforward narrative. A mostly silent road trip interrupted by the crass, hackish and hilarious comedy of Neil Hamburger, it presents a mundane but troubled America that fails to move forward. Failures in communication, linguistically or interpersonally are at the heart of this portrait.
Neither of these leads is appealing: they are not underdogs with hearts of gold, but troubled men trying to get their lives together. Neither character really transforms throughout the process. Neither character finds a happy ending. Their endless pursuit of unattainable goals, in one case keeping his mother alive and the other launching a career in comedy, drives their doomed journeys. From the start, there is a foreboding sense that neither men will accomplish their goals. A true cinematic loser cannot walk away a winner at the end. The real victory is often beyond their reach, even when they may fall into a temporary one.
In “Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia,” also shown at Locarno as part of the festival’s Sam Peckinpah retrospective, Benny (Warren Oates) bemoans before setting forth on a misguided adventure, “Nobody loses all the time.” By the end of the film, Benny is a world away from where he started, but what has he gained? Staring down the barrel of a gun, what does he have to look forward to? In American cinema, losers are a subversion of the American dream. They poke holes in the idea that if you work hard and be the best you can be things will fall into place. By refusing to let the characters regress in the comfort of stalled childhood, they don’t allow us to feel better about the world we live in.