Charlie Kaufman’s Pathetic Male Protagonists, Ranked

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Charlie Kaufman’s films deal heavily with the male ego. But it’s often not so much a deconstruction of the male ego as it is a depiction of the detritus of male egos that’ve always been damaged, caught in between the desperate parallels of self-loathing and self-obsession, envisioning themselves as both omnipotent and impotent.

In Force Majeure — perhaps the best deconstruction of the male ego in recent memory — Ruben Östlund (who, you may note, is not Charlie Kaufman) interrogated what would happen to a perfect nuclear family if a disaster brought out an intrinsic cowardice and narcissism in the patriarch. It depicts him running away from an avalanche that turns out to be fake, hypothetically leaving his family behind to be buried in snow, but managing to save his iPhone. And from there, his inability to fulfill gendered expectations leads him and his family towards extreme emotional isolation. Unlike this character, most of Kaufman’s men have known all along that they’d run away from the avalanche. With their escapist fantasies into John Malkovich, into action movie plots, into overwhelming and ephemeral love stories, and into meta-theatrical forms of self-aggrandizement, they embody that moment in perpetuity, living in a loop of escapes that only lead them deeper into their solipsistic selves.

With his new film, Anomalisa (which Vulture called a “stop motion despair comedy” and Flavorwire’s own Jason Bailey called “the culmination of everything he’s ever done”), Kaufman has added another pathetic male protagonist to the lineup. So it seems a particularly good time to see how all of these men measure up to one another as far as self-pity, self-loathing, and self-centeredness are concerned, to gauge the (granular) range of Kaufman’s meticulous depictions of schlubby middle-class-intellectual Eeyore-voiced white male narcissism. And so here they are, ranked from least to most pathetic:

6. Joel Barish — Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind (dir. Michel Gondry)

Joel Barish could seem as mopey and drab as Anomalisa‘s Michael if it weren’t for most of Eternal Sunshine being set during flashbacks in which Joel is experiencing a surge of life-affirming emotion through his relationship. But all of that is undermined by the fact that, as we’re watching those heartening moments unfold, he’s undergoing the disheartening process of erasing them. Joel would rather remember living a monotonous, loveless existence than endure the pain of flowing and ebbing love. But the film — perhaps Kaufman’s least cynical — asserts that beneath Joel’s self-effacing tendencies is the oft-dormant but powerful desire to transcend his norms and experiment with things that are emotionally bold. This force — likewise experienced by Kate Winslet’s Clementine — propels the film to its surprising conclusion, so perhaps Joel is only superficially pathetic: sad-eyed, hesitantly verbal, immersed in a colorless world, but secretly able to take chances, and secretly willing to color things in.

5. Chuck Barris — Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (dir. George Clooney)

Chuck almost doesn’t make the list, because this film almost exists outside the surrealist expressionism of Kaufman’s other work, and doesn’t hinge tonally on the moping antics of its protagonist. But central to audience’s notions of this based-on-a-“true”-story “biopic” is the question of whether its central, autobiography-writing ex-gameshow creator who claims to be an ex-assassin is rewriting a life he otherwise wouldn’t want to look back at. Is the whole autobiographic act — through which real-life Barris came out as a former CIA assassin, despite the CIA’s claims that he never was — a matter of monumentalizing a self that never existed?

4. Charlie Kaufman — Adaptation (dir. Spike Jonze)

Charlie Kaufman meta-filmically comments on the navel-gazing tendencies of his protagonist by having said protagonist gaze at a navel belonging to a character with Charlie Kaufman’s own name, occupation, and a hyperbolized version of his persona and physique. (Hilariously, the film is “based on” Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief, but in both she and her book are only parts of the Charlie Kaufman character’s world). And the fictitious version of Charlie Kaufman (but what is fiction? what is a Charlie Kaufman?) played by Nicolas Cage is so self-absorbedly self-effacing that he seemingly fabricates a twin brother who acts as the sum of everything he’s not, especially insomuch as his insecurities about traditional masculinity are concerned. Similarly, Donald writes Hollywood action films that are traditionally “masculine.”

Charlie thus plunges the two of them into an ambiguously fantastical orchid-thief action movie plot in order to write a movie — with himself as the main character, to be played by Gérard Depardieu — that’s more action-y than his past films. (Similarly to Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Kaufman uses audiences’ notions of digressions from or exaggerations of a real book on which the film is based to question how much of his narrative is his protagonist’s fantasy). There’s a lot of self-loathing in the Kaufman character in Adaptation, but at least it results in him writing, well, Adaptation — a depiction of patheticness so thoughtful and complex as to be the antithesis of pathetic.

3. Caden Cotard — Synecdoche, New York (dir. Charlie Kaufman)

Firstly, for patheticness-measurement purposes, it needs to be mentioned that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s theater director protagonist is named after a syndrome in which a person believes themselves to be dead, or their organs missing or putrefying; his speech — a low, melancholy monotone — and the very tone of the film mimic the idea of feeling both alive and dead at once. He is perhaps more narcissistic even than the Charlie Kaufman character in Adaptation, spending his entire life creating an ever-growing (in space, if not substance) play of his own life, creating a massive diorama of nothing in particular. But despite the desperation with which he documents his every move — all of which are caught up in such documentation — he’s not even able to exert control over his final moment. Rather, Diane Wiest’s character, who’s taken over direction of his play, intones with an authority that Caden’s never had: “Die.”

2. Michael Stone — Anomalisa (dir. Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson)

Anomalisa‘s central character Michael Stone is a puppet. Well, all of the characters are puppets, but such is the case because that is the way in which Michael sees the world. Unlike Joel, Charlie, Chuck or even Caden, Michael is so self-centered as to be incapable of love, to lead an existence that mirrors the symptoms of Fregoli Delusion (a paranoid syndrome in which a person believes everyone else to be the same individual). As the rest of the world blends around him, Michael seems solely interested in — and fearing the lack of — his own subjectivity, finding just as much uniqueness in a ghostly, antique sex doll as he does in the people around him. While Kaufman’s other characters are at least able to make art through their navel-gazing, despairing world views, Michael merely spouts adages he doesn’t even believe for his job as a motivational speaker. Most of Kaufman’s characters are able to shed light on their delusions through art: Michael’s output is only a continued delusion.

1. Craig Schwartz — Being John Malkovich (dir. Spike Jonze)

Though Craig may be a puppeteer (first of puppets, then of veteran actors) and Anomalisa’s Michael a puppet, Craig beats Michael — and the rest of them — for the pathetic crown. For, unlike the others, Craig channels his lifelong impotency into power and manipulation once he discovers a shortcut — John Malkovich’s brain. But his hastiness to cheat the world, essentially, backfires, and let’s just say that he ends up in a particularly creepy brain-prison even more paralyzing than that experienced on a day-to-day basis by Kaufman’s other characters.