The Pleasures of Competence

The Pleasures of Competence

by Sean Hughes

I know why I like terrible movies. They give me a giddy, punch-drunk feeling. They fail to engage me in their world, but they’re too weird to ignore, so my judgment and my attention are left to frolic in their aesthetic failures. But I’m not sure what I get out of mediocre movies. I don’t mean genre exercises or movies with brilliant set-pieces surrounded by nonsense. We know what we’re looking for when we watch a movie where break dancers raise money to save the rec center or someone uses roundhouse kicks to save the United States. What about those movies that have everything going for them but still don’t work? 

I saw My Best Friend’s Wedding less than twenty-four hours ago, and I can already feel it fading out of my memory. Julia Roberts plays a career-focused food writer who’s always warded off romantic intimacy, but desperately tries to break up her best friend’s engagement with a twenty-year-old college student (Cameron Diaz) because she wants him all to herself. Roberts fails in her quest, but her gay friend (Rupert Everett) flies across the country so she has someone to dance with at the wedding. There’s a hole at the center of this movie because the titular best friend has a personality with no distinguishing marks, and he’s played by a wet log that changed its name to Dermot Mulroney when it joined SAG. 

When talented people make a film that’s less than the sum of its parts, the best moments can stir up your admiration for moviemaking without making you admire the movie. There’s a scene where Roberts is sitting in the hall of a hotel, sadly smoking a cigarette after confessing to a reprehensible act of deception. When an employee, played by a baby-faced Paul Giamatti, comes to tell her that the whole floor is nonsmoking, she apologizes but offers him a puff before he goes on his way. He accepts, and they smoke a little, face to face. This moment, with that specifically 90s attitude towards cigarettes, wordlessly expresses the hope that we can still be worthy of forbearance and intimacy after we feel like we’ve ruined everything. It isn’t integral to the movie, but it’s my favorite use of actors and cameras throughout the whole thing.

The best scenes in a mediocre movie can capture the most ephemeral things about their historical moment. About halfway through the movie, Roberts tries to sabotage her best friend’s fiancé by taking the couple to a karaoke bar, knowing that his child bride is a terrible singer. When Roberts forces her to sing, Diaz does her best as the heckling crowd is slowly won over and ends up cheering her. Everything about this scene feels false, but it works cinematically. You can’t really believe that this is how Roberts’s character would try to undermine her friend’s affection for this young woman, but she sells it in the long takes. As the crowd is learning to love Diaz, Roberts can convey the suppressed dread that her plan is failing, which is also the dread of no longer being preferred. And that’s one of the fears that cameras are made to explore. Even though you can’t really believe any karaoke bar would be set up like this, maybe that’s all for the best. The scene feels like it was made by people who’ve never done karaoke but are projecting their desires and fears onto it—just right for 1997. 

It’s from a time when movies were still one of the primary ways adults processed contemporary life. I could imagine what it would be like back then to feel like it was worth the ticket to see movie stars fondly remember an old pop song, nod at our anxieties, and wear new clothes. The pleasure of competency has a strange way of obviating the movies where we find it. Sometimes, pleasantly wasted time is the closest thing to the ineffable feeling of being in the present.


Featured in our August 2022 issue, "Mediocrity"