Given all the pretty people in elegantly appointed modernist apartments, the trouble facing a movie maker is how to wring an interesting conflict out of them. It’s hard to believe at first that someone who’s both highly attractive and living in tastefully-designed, natural-light embraced domiciles could have much in the way of high-stakes conflicts, but they must—otherwise there’s no movie, now is there? In the past movie-makers could make their characters secret agents or superheroes or something, but some variety is always, always needed.
Hence a new modern comedy genre: the comedy of awkwardness. The first paragraph is a bit facetious; some of the examples of said comedy genre (e.g. The Office) don’t involve a surfeit of highly-attractive people living in highly-attractive real estate, but a lot of it does, certainly more than you’d expect given people’s ostensible careers in the stories. (Judd Apatow’s characters, for example, often live in surroundings that are much nicer than you’d expect: how do the unemployed slackers of Knocked Up manage to stay in a pretty nice, large house in California anyway? Just how is it that Steve Carrell can afford all that nice stuff in 40 Year Old Virgin anyway? The only really realistic living situation in Apatow’s movies was Funny People, in which Seth Rogen’s character bummed off of his friends by sleeping on their couch. Perhaps coincidentally, Funny People was the least profitable and worst received of Apatow’s directorial efforts.)
So if you’re going to have a lot of attractive people in nice living spaces, you need a conflict and it might as well be trouble on the domestic front—with families being the best example. And while families and friends have always fought about this or that, the main conflicts these days, I realized after watching The Kids Are All Right, come from exploiting the comic and dramatic potential of awkwardness. And that movie is probably the best example—“best” meaning highest quality here—of a lot of other recent movies, books, and TV shows primarily exploring awkwardness as its theme, humor, and conflict. Besides the examples I’ve listed before, I’ll note that David Foster Wallace spent quite a bit of time on awkwardness (though that wasn’t his only concern by any means), and great films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind spent a lot of time on that. (Indie films like Little Miss Sunshine and Juno also love awkwardness.)
Having spent college hearing people denote a solid minority of situations as “awkward”—or hearing people complaining about the tendency of other people denoting situations as “awkward” when they, the situations, were not necessarily awkward and it was just people’s hang-ups causing the awkwardness—I’d say, facetiousness aside, that the awkwardness theme in art is springing from somewhere in our culture.
It’s probably time to consider the source for this essay here. The Kids Are All Right is one of the better recent works on awkwardness, and it’s better because all of the characters are good people who can’t help but begin in awkwardness, wallow in awkwardness, and end in awkwardness. The situation of the film is as such: the children of a lesbian-headed family (played by Julianne Moore and Annette Bening) decide they want to meet their sperm donor (played by Mark Ruffalo, probably the role he was born to play). They do; hilarity (and drama!) ensues. The trouble is circumstance—the parents are having marital problems and worry that their children’s desire to seek out their sperm donor is somehow a manifestation of their dislike of their family structure or some such and, well, the movie goes on and is somewhat resistant to easy summarization.
The problem—the source of all of their awkwardness—is the rules. Obviously the conventional rules have not really completely figured out how to deal with the phenomenon of the type of family depicted in the film, but that’s not really all; Mark Ruffalo’s character turns out to be the type of person who we’ve all met once: a sort of free-spirited, impulsive kind of a guy whose basic attitude towards all opportunities is “Why not?” This kind of attitude can be a fine one; what it isn’t is particularly rules-oriented, since the social rules we live with tend to work by spelling out what kind of opportunities you don’t take advantage of. So if you’re the kind of guy who doesn’t care about the rules, you probably have to at least understand that other people do care about the rules. (And if no one quite understands which rules you’re playing by, as the family that Ruffalo’s character steadily insinuates his way into doesn’t, then more misunderstandings are bound to result.)
At the risk of being too pat here in the conclusive paragraph, I think there’s a relatively simple reason for this spate of awkwardness in our art, particularly in films like The Kids Are All Right: something like modernity. It’s not exactly a secret that the economy and the culture are conspiring to radically change our vision of the family: gay people marrying (The Kids Are All Right), people having to deal with long spells of unproductivity due to youth or disability or family structure (Knocked Up, Little Miss Sunshine, The Kids Are All Right, The Office, Infinite Jest), gender roles, or sheer technological change (Infinite Jest). The rules are changing, and fast, and so no one has been quite able to keep up. And given that we should expect more changes to come, and should hope for more good changes, it would be foolish to expect a future in which we’ve precisely worked out all the rules we’re playing by in everyday life, to say nothing of the difficulty of empathy (it is a longstanding cognitive bias). What this means for art, I can’t say: perhaps we will find new conflicts for our pretty people in pretty houses to boil over—perhaps the difficulty of interior design?