“Risky Business”–another 1980s hit that glorified psychopaths and narcissists.

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A while back, I wrote an article about the 1980s teen hit movie “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” and how its title character–the hero of the movie–was actually a raging (but extremely charming) psychopath who scored high on Hare’s Psychopathy Checklist.

I realized that most of the movie hits marketed to teens in the 1980s also idealize narcissism and psychopathy/sociopathy. One of the must successful movies of that era was a movie starring a then-unknown young actor named Tom Cruise (who I highly suspect of being an extremely malignant narcissist and probably a psychopath himself). I had a huge crush on him; many of my friends did too. But what was it about Joel Goodson (Cruise) that made him so attractive, that set the stage that turned Tom Cruise into a megastar and cultural icon whose fame (or infamy?) is still growing to this day?

I think one of the reasons these films were so popular was because the implications that sociopathy was A-okay came at the perfect time–when material values like wealth and power were beginning to be idealized over the humility and idealistic values of earlier generations. The fact that the movie starred people just entering young adulthood (and was marketed to a teen audience) made sure the next generation of adults would get the not-so-subtle message that psychopathy and narcissism are necessary to be happy and succeed in life.

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The now iconic “dancing in underwear” scene.

The protagonist, Joel Goodson, was a studious, vulnerable, somewhat nervous kid, not much unlike Cameron in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” He studied hard, made good grades, and obeyed his parents. He was naive and unassuming and just a little nerdy. But he was nice and seemed fairly popular in the low key kind of way enjoyed by smart, good kids who don’t make waves, especially when they’re as adorably handsome as Cruise was.

But Goodson was being tainted by his charming but sociopathic friend, an unattractive but uber-cool, edgy kid named Miles (Curtis Armstrong). Miles was the Ferris Bueller to Cruise’s Cameron, and his main goal was to “reform” him of his prosocial ways. His main advice (and the most important as it turned out) was his mantra “Sometimes you just have to say what the f*ck” (in this sense meaning not giving a damn and doing what you want).

Goodson’s parents go on vacation, leaving him in charge of their stately suburban Chicago home (why are these movies always taking place in upper middle class Chicago suburbs?) Miles encourages Joel to loosen up and have fun and not worry about consequences. He raids the Goodson’s parents’ liquor cabinet, gets Joel to smoke pot, and cons him to take part in antisocial escapades. He also invites prostitutes and other unwholesome types of people to Joel’s home while his parents are away.

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Rebecca DeMornay as Lana.

One of the prostitutes is a gorgeous blonde named Lana (Rebecca DeMornay) who seems to care about Joel in a maternal, nurturing way. Despite her questionable profession, she seems to be the best thing that could happen to Joel. She’s the empathetic mother Joel never had, whose own mother seems almost as cold as the mother in “Ordinary People.” Lana listens to him. He confides in her. She’s using him–but he’s too naive to know it yet.

Joel’s falling helplessly in love, but Lana has her own agenda. She invites (without asking Joel’s permission) some of her other prostitute friends over to Joel’s house, including Vicki, who is Lana’s best friend. They all go out to party along with Miles and a few of Joel’s other friends and get so stoned that they forget the put Joel’s new Porsche in the right gear when parking and it rolls down the hill into a lake. The car is filled with water and must be pumped out. Joel panics–he can’t afford the repairs but his parents will kill him if they find out. What to do?

Lana comes to the rescue. She talks Joel into having a party, in which all her friends will be there and take money for sex with all Joel’s friends and he can earn enough from the proceeds to get his car repaired before his parents come home. Plans are made for it to happen.

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Miles advising Joel.

Meanwhile, Lana’s pimp Guido (Joe Pantoliano) is causing more problems for Joel. He’s stalking her for money she owes him and Joel is caught in the fray. Lana doesn’t seem too worried about it though. As a narcissist herself, she doesn’t worry about much of anything. Joel falls more deeply under Lana’s thrall. But she has other plans. Guido keeps stalking Joel and Lana, demanding his money.

Party day arrives, and is more successful (and makes more money) than Joel could have dreamed. The only low point was when an officer from Princeton’s School of Business Administration decided to show up randomly at the door at the party’s high point, with everyone drinking and having sex in every room and bills exchanging fists. The interview ends and the officer appears to leave.

Joel’s in an awkward position, but tries to enjoy the rest of the party. Meanwhile, the Princeton officer has never left. He’s in one of the rooms having sex with one of Lana’s friends.

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The “new and improved” Joel Goodson.

After the party, Lana and Joel make love on an empty Chicago “El” train. Moody music plays and their lovemaking is tender and romantic–for the moment it seems like this hardened prostitute could be falling for Joel as much as he’s fallen for her.

When Joel returns home, he finds his parents’ home has been cleaned out, including his mother’s rare and expensive Steuben glass egg. His parents are due home in hours. Panicking, he calls Lana but gets Guido, who informs him the only way he can get the furniture and the egg back is by buying them back. Joel gets his friends together and they all go to Guido’s house where Joel’s parents’ possessions are being held hostage in the back of a van. They manage to get everything back and have it in its proper place just as Joel’s parents return home, to find their house looking as if it’s never been touched–except for one thing: a small crack in the Steuben egg.

In spite of that, Joel’s father tells him he’s proud of him for being so responsible and being accepted into Princeton– it turns out the officer who wound up bedding a whore was impressed with Joel’s enterprising nature and thought Princeton “could use someone like Joel.” He and Lana remain friends, but Joel’s changed. His attitude is a lot more cocky and confident than before. His reticence but also his conscience seem to be gone.


Official Trailer.

“Inside Out”: a touching and funny story about the way emotions work.

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Yesterday I decided to take myself to the movies for a change, and chose to see “Inside Out,” the Disney Pixar animated summer fantasy blockbuster.

Seeing “Inside Out” was a serendipitous choice, because I just happened to have enough money to afford a ticket (which is a rarity for me), and also because, although I didn’t know it right away, this movie has a beautiful message about the way Sadness and Joy, though seemingly polar opposites, when working together make human connection and unconditional love possible. Just as the light can’t exist without darkness, or good without evil, joy cannot exist without sadness. When working in sync with each other, these two emotions create a beautiful life affirming thing called Empathy, and that’s what connects us to each other and keeps the human race from becoming extinct.


Official Trailer


Sneak Preview–Teaser Clips

Riley Andersen is a young girl of 11 who becomes severely depressed after her parents’ decision to move from Minnesota to San Francisco. The movie begins at the moment of Riley’s birth in Minnesota, shown from Riley’s point of view. Her first Emotions (depicted as loveable anthropomorphized characters) are Joy (feeling secure in her parent’s love) and Sadness (when she needs something or feels ignored or in pain). As Riley grows into early toddlerhood, sometimes her needs and desires are thwarted and Anger takes over and she throws a tantrum. Around the same time she is also capable of feeling Fear or Disgust (both necessary for her survival), and it’s at those times those characters become dominant in Riley’s growing mind.

When the five Emotions work together in harmony, not overstepping each other’s boundaries and only doing the jobs assigned to them, this teamwork manifests in Riley as a well-adjusted little girl able to feel all her emotions at the appropriate times.

The five Emotions work in Headquarters, which is the conscious part of Riley’s young mind. Joy is responsible for making sure Riley’s short term memories are sent to Long Term Memory deep in Riley’s subconscious. Her memories are depicted as glowing colored orbs containing a ghostly image of the actual memory. The color of the orbs represent the dominant Emotion Riley felt at the time of the event. Transporting Short Term memories into Long Term Memory happens during Dream Production as Riley sleeps, and sometimes the other Emotions are needed to help Joy do her job getting the memories there (and sometimes discarding certain irrelevant or painful ones.) Occasionally the other Emotions (as well as Riley’s imaginary childhood friend, Bing Bong, who is a jokester) like to play little jokes–and certain irrelevant memories like an annoying gum commercial jingle are sent to Long Term Memory along with the important memories, which causes Riley to occasionally hear the gum jingle in her head at random times years later.

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At the center of Headquarters is the vault which contains Riley’s Core Memories–important but happy long term memories that are responsible for Riley’s happy go lucky personality. The orbs that represent these are colored gold (Joy’s color) and for Riley’s continued mental health, these core memories must not be contaminated by the other Emotions, which is why they are kept locked in a vault. Each of the Core Memories has a long glowing tube that leads to one of Riley’s Five Islands of Personality: Family, Goofiness, Hockey (which she loves to play), Friendship, and Honesty. Maintaining these islands is necessary for Riley’s continued normal psychological development.

The crisis in Riley’s mind is set off when her family moves from her beloved Minnesota to San Francisco. Moving away is always a traumatic event for even the most loved child. Feeling isolated from her old friends and lonely in a place she doesn’t know, Riley’s Emotions begin to make mistakes and not work in sync. Joy and the other Emotions have never been sure of Sadness’s purpose because she just seems to be a Debbie Downer who is always in the way and always making mistakes. It’s Joy’s job to keep Riley’s happiness intact, but one day shortly after the traumatic move, Sadness goes around touching Riley’s happy memories, turning them blue (sad). Joy frantically tries to undo the damage but the memories already touched cannot be repaired. Desperate, Joy tries to isolate Sadness to prevent her from doing any more damage.

On Riley’s first day at her new school, Sadness takes over and Riley begins to cry in class, which creates a new but painful core memory. Joy frantically tries to keep this new core memory from reaching the central vault, but in her struggle with Sadness, who seems to keep contaminating more memories, she accidentally knocks out some of Riley’s untouched happy core memories, which fall off into the abyss. These memories are almost impossible to retrieve once lost to Riley’s Unconscious. Worse yet, both Joy and Sadness are sucked through the Long Term Memory Tube themselves, and are both lost deep in Riley’s vast and labyrinthine Unconscious.

During Joy and Sadness’s absence, Anger, Fear and Disgust attempt to run Headquarters in their place and make a holy mess of things. They attempt to provide “joy” but of course it’s faked now, rather than genuine. Sadness too is absent, so Riley can no longer longer cry or even feel grief over her loss. Anger, Fear and Disgust manifest in Riley’s new insolent and angry attitude toward her parents and loss of interest in the things she used to love. With the core memories now missing or contaminated, one by one the Five Islands of Personality crumble and fall into the abyss of the Memory Dump, a place deep in Riley’s mind where old memories are forgotten. The first Island to crumble into oblivion is Goofiness (Riley’s sense of humor), followed by Hockey (which she quits), and then Friendship (she no longer has any desire to make new friends).

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Joy and Sadness find themselves adrift after falling through the Long Term Memory tube deep into Riley’s unconscious mind.

Desperate, Anger decides to insert in Riley’s mind the idea to run back to Minnesota. He plugs this into the Control Console, in the belief this can produce new happy memories. This requires Riley to steal money from her mother’s purse in order to fund her trip back to Minnesota, and then she lies about the theft. As a result, the second to last Island left, Honesty, falls away in ruins into the Memory Dump.

Back in the abyss of Riley’s deep Unconscious, Joy and Sadness run into Bing Bong, Riley’s long forgotten childhood imaginary friend. Bing Bong wants to reconnect with Riley, so he tells Joy and Sadness they can all get back to Headquarters by riding the Train of Thought. After a series of failed attempts, they eventually catch the train, but it becomes derailed when the last personality island, Family, falls into the Dump.

At this point, giving any more away would be spoiling the plot, but gradually Joy and Sadness, who have always been at odds with each other, realize that in order for Riley to return to her normal happy state of mind, they must work together as a team and Sadness has the biggest job of all. Riley must be able to experience–and receive–empathy and love (which comprise both joy and sadness) to heal from her near-catatonic depression.

As a blogger about narcissism and personality disorders, I see Riley at this point in grave danger of suicide or developing a personality disorder, even NPD or BPD. Her trauma-induced depression has caused her to become apathetic and unable to feel anything at all. What happens next is so magical and touched me so deeply I sat there in the darkened theater with tears running unchecked down my face and my nose running. I wasn’t alone–I heard sniffles and nose blowing all over the theater, and there’s a safety and sense of connection with total strangers that comes from that, and that’s why going to see a good movie never gets old. There’s something wonderfully liberating about being able to cry in a public place yet unseen by others and unjudged for it because everyone else is crying too. I think that’s why “heartstring tugging” movies are so popular. But the emotions elicited in “Inside Out” feel real–there’s no sappiness or fake sentimentality in this film that make you feel manipulated by the producers.

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The five Islands of Personality.

But for all its poignancy, “Inside Out” has plenty of humor too, and all the jokes are clever and well timed. At times during the movie I was both laughing and crying at the same time. The Five Emotions are all funny characters with their own unique charm. Even Anger is loveable and hilarious in his own irascible way, and the Tinker-Bell like Joy, who could have been incredibly annoying for all her upbeat perkiness, has a depth you don’t expect and over time you realize she is the only Emotion who can feel all the other Emotions. I pictured Joy and Sadness as really being the same person–the two sides of Riley’s True Self–and when they were lost in Riley’s memory dump, Riley’s behavior became quite narcissistic. It wasn’t lost on me that both Joy’s hair color and her “aura” are colored blue–Sadness’ color.

Pete Doctor, the film’s director and screenwriter, was inspired to develop “Inside Out” while trying to come to terms with his own daughter’s psychological changes and mood swings as she approached adolescence. To give the complex psychological concepts presented credibility, well-known developmental psychologists were consulted during pre-production. It’s obvious that a deep knowledge of the way the human mind works fueled both the story and the landscape of Riley’s mind. Kids will adore “Inside Out” because of its lovable characters, fantastic animation, humor, its engaging story about a regular girl, and impressive special effects. In the theater I saw it in, there were plenty of children there, and all of them were rapt in the story.

But adults will love it just as much because of the movie’s deep message of Empathy being born from pain and loss, and the necessity of “negative” emotions to exist in a healthy person’s psyche, working in tandem with “positive” ones. Understanding the movie at this level requires an ability to think in an abstract way about the mechanisms behind personality development and psychological disorders. “Inside Out” is a rare movie that celebrates the human ability to feel, and to love, cry, connect, and laugh. It tells kids that all their emotions are okay, and experiencing them is normal and just part of growing up.

Parents, if you have children ages 4 to early teens, please take them to see “Inside Out.” Both you and they will leave the theater feeling great, and the ideas presented in the story can open up honest discussion about emotions between parents and their children. I’d even go so far as to suggest teachers show this movie to their students, and engage them in discussion afterwards.

I find it encouraging and heartening that such an honest and touching movie with a positive message about genuine emotions and empathy has become the hit of the summer, instead of the usual mindless dreck that passes for summer blockbusters.

“Inside Out” is rated PG. I would not recommend it for children age 3 and younger, due to several quite scary moments that could give a young child nightmares.

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Riley with her concerned parents at the dinner table.

My rating: Five Stars! *****

Facts about “Inside Out”:
via Wikipedia

“Inside Out” is a 2015 American 3D computer-animated comedy-drama film produced by Pixar Animation Studios and released by Walt Disney Pictures. Directed and co-written by Pete Docter, the film is set in the mind of a young girl, Riley Andersen (Kaitlyn Dias), where five personified emotions—Joy (Amy Poehler), Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), Fear (Bill Hader), and Sadness (Phyllis Smith)—try to lead her through life as she moves with her parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) to a new city. The film was co-directed and co-written by Ronnie del Carmen and produced by Jonas Rivera, with music composed by Michael Giacchino.

Docter first began developing Inside Out in 2009 after noticing changes in his daughter’s personality as she grew older. The film’s producers consulted numerous psychologists, including Dacher Keltner[6] from the University of California, Berkeley, who helped revise the story emphasizing the neuropsychological findings that human emotions are mirrored in interpersonal relationships and can be significantly moderated by them.

After premiering at the 68th Cannes Film Festival in May, Inside Out was released on June 19, 2015. It received universal critical acclaim, with many film critics praising the voice performances (particularly for Poehler, Smith, and Richard Kind), its concept and poignant subject matter. The film grossed $90.4 million in its first weekend—the highest opening for an original title, besting Avatar‍ ’​s previous record.

“Welcome to Me”–a darkly humorous look at borderline personality disorder

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I’ve been wanting to post a movie review (which I haven’t done in a while), and also something about borderline personality disorder. How serendipitous that the “chick flick” my daughter and I decided to see this afternoon is a movie about a woman who has borderline personality disorder! I had no idea! It’s a good movie (and it’s directed by Will Farrell, who I love).
Here is my review of it.

Alice Klieg (Kristen Wiig) is a 40ish divorced woman who lives off the disability benefits she gets for her severe case of borderline personality disorder, which keeps her nearly unable to function normally due to severe depressions, self-destructive behavior, and general inability to regulate her emotions. Alice is quirky–obsessed with Oprah, hasn’t turned off her television in 11 years, and she’s addicted to buying lottery tickets. Her psychiatrist, Dr. Moffatt (Tim Robbins), is nearly at his wit’s end with Alice’s erratic mood swings, uncooperative behavior, and refusal to take her medications (prescribed to help regulate her moods). She has stopped taking her Abilify, and right after that the impossible happens–she wins 86 million dollars in the California State Lottery.

That’s when things get really crazy. A series of events leads up to Alice demanding her own show in the same vein as her idol Oprah. She acts crazy enough the television producers don’t take her seriously, until she writes them a check for 15 million dollars. The show, “Welcome to Me,” is on, and of course it’s all about Alice.

On her show, she demands a swan float to transport her onstage at the beginning of each episode, diva treatment, and she throws tantrums when things don’t go her way. She drives everyone around her crazy. But people are watching because they never know what poor crazy Alice will do next, and the show’s bringing the studio money so they can’t cancel it.

Alice decides she wants to re-enact scenes from her own life, using sets that are exact replicas of the places where they occurred. Actors are hired to play the roles, but Alice is never satisfied. She screams, yells, verbally attacks everyone (and then wonders why they pull away), and constantly cries on set. No one knows what to do with this apparently insane woman who can’t seem to control her impulses and emotions.

On the live show, Alice dresses in ridiculous, over the top attire, insists on singing the theme song herself (she can’t carry a note), bakes a meat cake with sweet potato frosting and spends most of the show sitting there eating it, neuters dogs onset (she used to work as a vet nurse), and throws a lot of temper tantrums. She’s also sexually promiscuous.

Things keep getting worse, and she alienates her long-time friend Gina (Linda Cardellini) by depicting her as fat in one of the sketches. Other people from Alice’s past who were insulted by the re-enactments (where even their real names were used) decide to sue the television studio.

Alice’s unpredictable, out of control and untrustworthy behaviors also anger Dr. Moffatt, who fires her as his patient and tells her point blank, “I think you’re dangerous.” In typical Borderline fashion, Alice cries and pleads with him, “don’t leave me!”

It takes a near-disaster for Alice to realize her out of control behaviors are eclipsing any ability she has to care about others and be a true friend to others. She’ll have a lot of amend-making to do if her broken relationships are ever to be repaired. Will it be possible for her to fix what she has destroyed or to ever really care about others? I won’t answer that here: you’ll have to see the movie for yourself.

I noticed some interesting parallels between BPD and NPD in this movie. Alice is quite narcissistic, grandiose, completely self-centered, and totally oblivious to the needs of others. But there’s something charming and quirky about her too. She’s never deliberately malicious–she’s impulsive and selfish and her obliviousness keeps getting her into all kinds of trouble. What keeps Alice from being a narcissist is that she actually has a conscience and the ability to feel badly when she realizes she has hurt so many people.

Kirsten Wiig is convincing as a severely Borderline patient, but while she can be funny, her insane behavior made me squirm in embarrassment. She’s uncomfortable and awkward to watch, but that can be the case in a BPD patient who’s completely out of control of their impulses and emotions.

I recommend this movie to anyone interested in Cluster B disorders, especially BPD, and how it can create disaster not only for the people their lives touch, but for themselves. Unlike NPD, there is nothing adaptive about borderline personality disorder to its sufferers.

“We Need to Talk about Kevin”: are psychopaths born or made?

Eva Khatchadourian (played brilliantly by Tilda Swinton) is a former travel writer who’s ambivalent about her first pregnancy, and doesn’t seem to be able to connect with her newborn son Kevin, an infant who cries constantly and squirms away whenever she tries to hold him. Eva also suffers from postpartum depression and lack of sleep, which doesn’t make it any easier to connect with her ornery child. Eva as a new mother has the look of a concentration camp survivor. She is utterly tormented by her son–and her inability to feel maternal love for him.

As Kevin grows older, it’s apparent there’s something not quite right about him. Even as a very young boy of three or four, he has an unnerving, soul-piercing stare and never smiles or laughs. Though obviously very intelligent, Kevin isn’t out of diapers until he is 6 or 7, and refuses to engage with others, especially with Eva. He becomes disruptive at home and at school, and is always in trouble. Besides seeming to do things deliberately to upset Eva, Kevin bullies other kids at school, and encourages one girl, who has a severe skin disorder, to pick at her scabs. He’s sneaky and devious and shows no remorse for his bad behaviors. He seems to have only two facial expressions: sullen, or self-satisfied sneer when he’s gotten away with something.

There’s one poignant scene when Kevin becomes very sick and this is the only time he shows any vulnerability and allows himself to be mothered like a normal child. Here, while Kevin’s defenses are down and his mask of impending psychopathy is temporarily disabled, we can catch a fleeting glimpse of little-boy innocence and neediness and some emotion that may even resemble love. This scene makes you begin to question whether Kevin was born evil, or if his psychopathy may have been caused by Eva’s failure to bond with him as an infant.

The rest of the time, there’s an disturbing lack of innocence in Kevin. There’s an unsettling scene when Kevin, about age 3, is sitting on the floor while Eva rolls a ball to him. Not only does he fail to roll the ball back, but he fixes her with his unnerving hateful stare, a look you wouldn’t believe such a young child could be capable of.

As Kevin grows into adolescence (adolescent Kevin is played with subtle and chilling power by Ezra Miller), his misdeeds become more serious, and start to endanger not only his fellow students and teachers, but other members of his own family. At one point he does something unspeakable to his younger sister, Celia (a child his mother wanted and who is temperamentally Kevin’s polar opposite–a sweet and empathetic child), and then smoothly lies about it without showing a shred of empathy or remorse. The strain of raising this difficult child eventually destroys Eva’s marriage to Kevin’s father, Franklin (played by John C. Reilly), who disagrees with his wife’s belief that Kevin is disturbed and naively continues to insist he is a normal, loving child but that Eva’s attitude toward him is cold and unmotherly. Eva herself is torn–she seems to try her best to do and say the right things to Kevin, but it’s clear nothing is getting through to him and the strain is destroying her.

Things come to a head when Kevin commits a shocking crime at age 15 followed by another that is even more heinous. The entire film is told in flashbacks, in the form of Eva’s letters to her husband Franklin (who has left Eva and whose whereabouts are a mystery until the end of the film) and conversations between Kevin and Eva while he is in prison.

Eva tries to come to term with what has happened, to deal with the aftermath and ostracization by everyone the family knew, and most of all, what part she may have played in her son’s crimes. One question that runs throughout the film: was Eva a bad mother who caused her child to become bad, or was Kevin just born bad?

In the final scenes between Eva and Kevin while he’s in prison, it’s possible to see how sophisticated and subtle Kevin’s manipulations of Eva have become. Theirs is a complicated relationship: while he obviously hates her, it also becomes evident he has more respect for her than for his father, who always showered him with unconditional love and for whom Kevin has nothing but dismissive, snarling contempt.

“We Need to Talk About Kevin” (based on the 2003 book by Lionel Shriver) is one of the most chilling and thought provoking movies about psychopathy I’ve ever seen, and like other great psychological thrillers, it asks more questions about human nature than it answers.