There's Nothing Wrong With Being Nice
Armando Iannucci could teach classes about being mean.
Don't get me wrong - I'm sure that Iannucci, in real life, is a very pleasant man but his work on television shows such as IN THE THICK OF IT and VEEP and films such as THE DEATH OF STALIN and IN THE LOOP are masterclasses in biting cutdowns and quick-witted mean-spiritedness. That’s why it’s so impressive that Iannucci’s latest film, THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD is, for the most part, exceedingly nice and even, dare I say, sentimental.
An adaptation of the critically-acclaimed serialized novel by Charles Dickens, THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD stars Dev Patel as the titular hero, a young man who rises through misfortune and setback to find success as a writer by using his pen to capture the assortment of odd folks that he meets throughout his life. The film features an amazing ensemble cast that includes Peter Capaldi, Hugh Laurie, Tilda Swinton, Ben Whishaw, and Morfydd Clark.
I wasn’t familiar with Dickens’ original novel. It somehow never ended up on any assigned reading lists during my academic years and I don’t go back and read nearly as much classic literature as I should. Being familiar with Iannucci’s past work, though, I expected something sharper from the film – two hours of put-downs, insults, and creative uses of curse words. I have so rarely been so happy to have been so completely wrong in my assumptions. THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD is a PG-rated romp, featuring a tremendous amount of humor but also a lot of warmth, heart, and love of humanity. The film looks amazing too, featuring some great set design, costuming, and direction from the assembled filmmaking team.
People take advantage of David Copperfield throughout his life but the hero never dwells too long in his misfortune. He treats everybody around him as the complex people they are, both good and bad. I felt the movie was nuanced in its approach to sentimentality unlike I have grown accustomed to in my entertainment lately.
I have struggled a lot this past year with my relationship with meanness. I find being mean attractive, and that’s a problem. I don’t know why, exactly I respond to meanness so much – but I do. I look up to mean people and I find mean humor, like the kind Iannucci has mastered in his comedies, aspirational. I love to read through Twitter and its cavalcade of comedians out to drag the world’s supply of idiots. Some of my favorite bosses and teachers were sharp-witted people whose praise I had to work to pluck out through the criticism and putdowns they more freely offered.
Growing up, I came to appreciate adulation that took an effort to earn – eventually getting to the point where easy compliments and unexpected smiles make me suspicious. I have sought out past romantic relationships with mean people and some of my best friendships are ones where we routinely say the worst stuff to each other, out of an assumption that we could only say these mean things because we care so much about each other. I am used to people being nasty to one another. But what happens when the entire world is nasty?
While I have always struggled with my anger and my propensity towards vindictiveness, 2020 has really tested my desire to be a nicer person. For the last few months, I have felt as if I have reached my fill of meanness. The internet is full of angry people saying angry things. Some of this anger is beyond well-deserved. It’s hard for me to condone the passion I see online when it results in such worthy movements as Black Lives Matter and Me Too. All the while, though, I worry about how the anger that drives those campaigns is seeping into the soil, poisoning everything else. People are being mean about anything and everything. Some of this meanness blurs the line between deserved and over-the-top. There are misguided – even truly bad - people out there, but do we effect real change when all we show them is our worst side? At what point does outrage stop being productive and become dangerous?
This anger that is building up and being utilized to fuel snarky social media posts cannot be good for our species’ mental health. I feel like humans are weaponizing our capacity to be mean and its driving wedges further between people than ever before. Empathy is becoming difficult because it’s so much easier to be mean than to try and understand what makes a person say and do the things they say and do.
Ore am I wrong? Is this all necessary towards building a better, more equal tomorrow? Are we righting the sins of the past by dragging out the darkness that has always existed in our souls and making it beyond visible?
A few years back I began to experience random bursts of anger. I would find myself getting uncontrollably mad at the stupidest of things. At the slightest issue, I would blow up at friends and co-workers. I was stressed and that stress was making me a complete jerk to be around. I made some choices in my life and I tried to balance my mental health better. It was difficult but, as a result, I have found my anger problems dissipating over the last few years. I still get plenty mad on occasion – usually still about really stupid stuff – but, in general, I’m a lot less likely to explode than I previously was. And I feel better as a result! No indigestion, no sleepless nights, no bad dreams in which I wake up angry because I fought with people in my sleep. I’m happier because I’m trying to not be as angry or mean so much. But why do I still respond so positively to other people being angry? Why do I find the meanness of others to be funny? Why do I seek this toxicity out in other people and in my entertainment when I have tried to expunge it from my own life? Is living vicariously through other people's snark helping me to become less snarky myself or is it just building up a higher tolerance?
I struggle with the way I idolize people who blur cruelness and comedy but I do want to get to the point where I can limit the amount of meanness in my life. I don’t think America and the rest of the world can survive the future that Twitter and its hot take culture promises. I appreciate the fact that Iannucci’s THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD is so pleasant, to the point of being slight. It might not be as quotable as his previous works – fun ways to say “fuck” are always going to be fun – but I will definitely find myself revisiting DAVID COPPERFIELD more because I enjoyed the way the movie made me feel when it was over.
I feel like movies such as THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD have the capacity to help rewire my brain and, if I'm going to rewire it with something, what could be better than the combined wit of Charles Dickens and Armando Iannucci?