In the astute new road-trip movie "Crystal Fairy," set mostly in Chile's Atacama Desert, Michael Cera plays an archetypal Ugly American.
In fact, Cera plays several versions of the Ugly American popularized through generations of movies, novels and plays. His fabulously annoying character, Jamie, who's obsessed with experiencing the ultimate high by drinking mescaline brewed from the rare San Pedro cactus, is also the Stoner American, the Entitled American and, perhaps most familiar of all, the Materially Bloated But Spiritually Malnourished American Desperately Seeking Enlightenment.
FOR THE RECORD:
Americans abroad in film: In the July 28 Calendar section, an article about movie depictions of Americans abroad identified Mel Gibson's character in "The Year of Living Dangerously" as a U.S. foreign correspondent. The character is Australian. —
These types of characters (or caricatures) of Americans abroad behaving badly have been around at least since the days of Mark Twain and Henry James. What's striking is how little, in some ways, the depictions have changed between the late 19th century and the present age of smartphone-wielding mobs stalking the "Mona Lisa," and beery, breast-flashing collegians whom Latin Americans refer to, with eye-rolling exasperation, as los springbreakers.
Accidental tourists and naive hedonists, lost souls and misguided idealists — all blundering into places where they shouldn't be, wreaking havoc on the native customs, and exposing their own swaggering parochialism. We've come a long way, alas, from Humphrey Bogart's stoic, quietly noble Rick in "Casablanca" or Gene Kelly's ebullient "American in Paris," characters who embodied mid-20th century America's idealized self-image.
Here's a guide to some of the more contemporary cinematic Americans abroad who, like Jamie, might've done better to stay home.
Can I use frequent-flier miles to reach my inner-most self?
Ever since the Lost Generation of the 1920s, young Americans have gone abroad to find or escape themselves, to shed their drab heartland identities and adopt glamorous new personas. Youth still dominates this melancholy sub-genre of cinematic narrative, and Europe remains its destination of choice.
But this malaise has become globalized and age-agnostic, afflicting the successful and middle-aged (Bill Murray's Tokyo-befuddled Bob Harris in "Lost in Translation") as well as the goofy, thirtysomething brothers on a clueless, luxury-class pilgrimage of self-discovery and sibling bonding across India in Wes Anderson's "The Darjeeling Limited."
Apparently every generation of Americans gets lost in its own special way. In Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris," the financially flush but creatively unfulfilled Hollywood screenwriter played by Owen Wilson flees his professional frustrations (and his superficial fiancée) by time-warping back to the era when expat literati like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein walked the Earth. What hasn't changed since the Jazz Age is the whiny self-loathing implicit in these odysseys.
Eat, pray, love, shop
Despite Hollywood's general reluctance to set foot in most of the so-called developing world, its infatuation endures with northern Italy, southern India and the Left Bank. One of U.S. cinema's most dependable tropes is the single/divorced woman who lights out in the general direction of the Mediterranean or the subcontinent ("Under the Tuscan Sun," "Eat, Pray, Love") in search of the perfect man, the perfect house or the perfect blancmange.
Such travelers are advised to pack a bottomless suitcase of stunning designer ensembles along with an equally mysterious source of income that allows them to live like the heroine of a Danielle Steel novel despite seldom appearing to do a lick of work.
Emotional unburdening and erotic awakening are, of course, the objects of these sojourns. But compare these vacuous wish-fulfillment fantasies with the genre's gold standard, David Lean's bittersweet "Summertime" (1955), starring Katharine Hepburn at her most radiant as a middle-age Akron, Ohio, secretary in Venice, Italy, who ultimately chooses independence and truthfulness over romantic delusion.
Likewise, both movie adaptations of Tennessee Williams' Jamesian novella "The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone" — first with Vivien Leigh, then with Helen Mirren, as an aging, newly widowed actress who takes up with an Italian gigolo (played by Warren Beatty and Olivier Martinez, respectively) — recognize that true self-knowledge can't simply be snapped up at a duty-free shop. Inevitably, it carries a hefty price.
It's a scary world after all
From the 1930s to the mid-1950s, Hollywood movies mainly depicted foreign climes as postcard locales, often infused with a type of romantic elan supposedly beyond the reach of Yankee rubes. These notions of European cultural superiority, in particular, linger today in some films like fumes from a spent bottle of Chanel No. 5 (e.g. "Midnight in Paris").
But a more jaundiced Hollywood view of the outside world took hold after the national traumas of the Vietnam War and Watergate. Like those old Karl Malden ads for American Express Travelers Cheques ("Don't leave home without them"), Hollywood began to see the outside world as menacing and disorienting, suffused not with glamour but with gothic horror ("Don't Look Now," "An American Werewolf in London," "The Beach"), nasty locals (Sam Peckinpah's "Straw Dogs"), baffling rules and sinister officials (Costa-Gavras' "Missing," based on the true story of a U.S. father whose son is killed during Chile's 1973 military coup).
Even professional wayfarers and wandering do-gooders were warned to watch their step outside of Uncle Sam's comfort zone. The fictive foreign correspondent played by Mel Gibson discovers that his animal magnetism and journalistic idealism are no match for the repressive Indonesian regime in "The Year of Living Dangerously."
A more nuanced, if troubling, version of the idealistic U.S. expat can be found in "The Quiet American," Phillip Noyce's adaptation of Graham Greene's novel about a Harvard-trained CIA operative in Saigon. Similarly perceptive is John Boorman's underrated "Beyond Rangoon," in which the doctor played by Patricia Arquette must reckon with her personal travails in light of the far greater suffering of Burma's oppressed masses.
What part of English don't you understand?
But perhaps the salient trait of nearly all U.S.-made movies about Americans abroad is how rarely they include non-Americans who function as more than scenic props.
With exceptions like "Crystal Fairy" or David Riker's indie parable "The Girl," about a Texas single mom who befriends and reverse-migrates with an orphaned Mexican child, movies about itinerant Americans still tend to human-traffic in one-dimension: thus, Mexican drug dealers, snooty French waiters, wacky Japanese TV personalities, screaming Islamist fanatics ("Argo").
Rarer than tourist-free cafes along the Champs-Élysées are fresh films like Whit Stillman's "Barcelona." In that observant, humane comic drama, the protagonists — odd-couple male American cousins struggling to adjust to Spain's shifting political and sexual mores — are matched by the vivid, fully drawn characters of the Spanish women they become involved with.
"Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find," Walt Whitman exhorted his fellow Americans more than a century ago. Lucky for Whitman he didn't live to see "Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun