The movie that Second Best reminds me of as much as any is Whatever Works, the Woody Allen film starring Larry David. The protagonist Elliot is the same kind of misanthropic curmudgeon, and it too is primarily a comedy but intended to make certain more serious points.
It’s also similar in that Elliot is supposed to be this bitter, lonely, critical and self-critical guy, yet he’s surrounded by lifelong friends who get him and have respect for his integrity, and the one time in the movie he tries to bed a hot chick he succeeds. (Admittedly, Jennifer Tilly in an over-the-top performance as a brassy white trash crossing guard isn’t exactly on the level of a 21 year old Evan Rachel Wood, but you wouldn’t catch me tossing her out of bed.)
Elliot is a writer, unsuccessful enough to have to routinely bum money from family and friends to get by. Other than a screenplay he recently submitted to a friend, he’s given up for now submitting his material formally to magazine editors or other literary gatekeepers.
Instead his current shtick is to write little newsletter length essays and pay a kid a few dollars to distribute hundreds of them all over the neighborhood, sticking them on windshields and such. (Basically he’s a blogger. Which makes it odd that he never blogs, but instead tries to reach readers in this peculiar way. Second Best is from 2004. Was that before blogging became big? Surely today he’d be doing all this online.)
Basically they’re all diatribes about “losers,” and it’s always “we” and “us” because he counts himself among their number. It’s all about their pettiness, their failures, their envy, their cowardice, and on and on.
Eventually he writes one piece each on his friends, analyzing everything pathetic about them, putting them in the worst possible light, building toward when he will write about himself and really take off the gloves, though he sprinkles plenty of self-deprecating remarks throughout all his pieces.
Most of his friends are just “regular Joes” like himself, but one is one of the most successful movie producers in Hollywood. He returns to the neighborhood for a visit, and much of the movie is about his relationship with Elliot—a deep friendship but one that’s tense and complex and affected enough by their vastly different values, lifestyles, and the circles in which they now travel to always seemingly be in jeopardy.
I’m really not quite sure how much I like Elliot, or the movie (though they don’t have to be strictly correlated).
In some ways he’s an interesting person, and my values and attitudes overlap with his somewhat. What to make, though, of his incessant insistence on what a loser he is, and for that matter most people are?
I don’t have a problem with someone having a self-deprecating style. That’s a style I sometimes have myself. I don’t have a problem with someone defying the “happy talk” of the positive thinking movement, where everyone is supposed to go around reminding themselves all the time how great they are. Deceiving oneself and others with the benevolent motive of shoring up a fragile ego is still deception, and is still quite creepy.
But his style, taken to this extreme, is really not an admirable humility, or a courageous frankness. It’s mostly just posturing. In its way, this negativity is just as insincere as a person kissing ass and/or constantly puffing himself up.
It crosses the line to where it’s a form of boasting rather than truly taking stock of oneself and others and pointing out flaws so as to facilitate improvement. This is inoculating oneself against being hurt by the criticism of others by trashing oneself before they ever get a chance to.
For all his supposed frankness, I found myself getting impatient with him and wanting to tell him, “Can you be real for once? Instead of being cute and literary and playing little verbal and psychological games with yourself and others, can you just be real for once?”
Because based on what one can infer, I think his values are probably pretty good. But instead of talking about them openly and embracing them openly, he goes through this charade of constantly proclaiming what a loser he is.
There are a few decent laughs here and there (I especially liked Jennifer Tilly leaving in a huff and slapping him, and then slapping his friend on the way out for no apparent reason, except that he’s standing there and he’s his friend), but mostly it was the more serious subject matter that drew me in.
It’s a psychologically and morally thought-provoking film. The interplay between Elliot and the wealthy producer is handled fairly well.
Still, I’m going to say that Second Best is a near miss. It has interesting enough characters, premises, and themes, but I don’t know that it ever does quite enough with them.
It felt promising to me much of the way. And it’s entirely possible that if I thought about it more or watched it again that I’d nudge it into the thumbs up category, because there are definitely things I like about it. (I think it’s a little deeper and slightly superior to the aforementioned Whatever Works, by the way.) But somehow Second Best just never really comes together.