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The ‘Mismatched Buddy Movie’ Is the Male Equivalent of the Rom-com

They’re a guide to navigating the complex world of male friendship

Here’s our wild guess at the basic premise of The Hitman’s Bodyguard, which comes out today: Two guys who don’t get along eventually work together to overcome their obstacles and become best buddies along the way, despite their differences.

We know, we may be psychic.

The Mismatched Buddy Movie, with its familiar beats, has been an enduring genre for decades now and, while there have been flops (we’re looking at you, Kevin Smith’s Cop Out), filmmakers are mostly still able to deliver entertaining Mismatched Buddy Movies despite their predictability (looking at you, The Nice Guys).

But why? On two counts, really: 1) Why are big-name directors and actors still so interested in making them — tired or not? And 2) why are we still so interested in watching them — even though we know exactly what’s going to happen?

In the name of science, we reached out to a guy with a Phd in film studies, a psychologist and a social worker and then binge-watched a shitload of Mismatched Buddy Movies (but not Cop Out) to try to uncover what makes them so endearing.

The Format

The dynamic of two guys who don’t get along but who are forced to coexist has been around a long, long time, says Gregory Bray, a professor of Digital Media & Journalism at SUNY New Paltz.

“This format existed in vaudeville with Laurel and Hardy,” he says, as well as other duos, and the dynamic eventually carried over into movies. There’s an important distinction between these early incarnations and modern Mismatched Buddy Movies, though: “It’s not like at the end of the film, Laurel and Hardy were different people than they were at the beginning of the film,” says Bray. Back then, he explains, there was no character arc: It was simply a straight man and a punchline.

The format evolved over the next several decades, really growing into something new in 1982 with the release of 48 Hrs., in which Eddie Murphy starred as a slick, motor-mouth crook opposite Nick Nolte’s rugged, angry cop. “Prior to that, cops were all lone-wolf characters, like Dirty Harry and Sam Spade,” says Bray. “But after 48 Hrs., that’s where you get the springboard into the Lethal Weapon films.”

The first of the Lethal Weapon movies — which we tend to think of as the blueprint for, if not the gold standard, of Mismatched Cop Buddy Movies — came along just five years later. But that same year brought with it another mismatched friends classic, Planes Trains and Automobiles, the epitome of the other major type of Mismatched Buddy Movie: The Mismatched Road Trip Buddy Movie. This has its origins in the Bob Hope and Bing Crosby Road to… films, but Planes redefined the genre, its influence still felt in everything from Tommy Boy to Due Date.

While other Mismatched Buddy Movies do exist (e.g., Trading Places), most tend to be about either cops or road trips — situations that force the two men to work/be together in tight, trying circumstances — as well as follow the same basic format:

  • A reluctant odd couple are paired together against their will.
  • At first, they bicker and fight, but they eventually prove themselves to each other and in doing so, come to understand each other’s motivations.
  • Around two-thirds of the way through the movie, they “break up,” either due to a big personal revelation/betrayal or a devastating failure to complete their task.
  • By the end of the film, they reunite to overcome their given obstacle and cement their new status as BFFs.

Credits roll, everyone feels good and a shit-ton of box office comes rolling in (not you, Cop Out).

The Trope v. Reality

So how true-to-life — and more importantly, how relatable — are the friendships we see in these movies? As we’ve discussed in depth before, male friendships are a complicated business (even at the movie theater). “Men have been socialized to compete with each other from a very early age,” argues Geoffrey Greif, a professor of social work at the University of Maryland and the author of Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships.

Plus, most of our early intimate relationships, he continues, are with women — e.g., our mothers or elementary school teachers. In adulthood, this results in “men not feeling comfortable feeling vulnerable, and seeking out friendship requires a level of vulnerability.”

Greif also says that men may be used to experiencing rejection from women (even if they don’t necessarily handle it well), but dealing with rejection from a guy is much harder, meaning they often don’t seek out new friends for fear of rejection, or even just appearing needy.

In Mismatched Buddy Movies, though, not only are men making friends, which is hard enough, they’re usually making friends with guys who are very different from themselves (it’s, y’know, kinda the whole point of the genre).

On the whole, there are four major go-to differences that Hollywood likes to use to demonstrate the gulf between the two stars and how those factors might affect a real-life friendship:

1) Race. Seen in movies like the Rush Hour series and 48 Hrs., race is a defining point of difference for the two protagonists. (It’s less of a prominent factor in Lethal Weapon, strangely, probably because Danny Glover’s character had “no set ethnicity in the script.”) While cross-racial friendships do, of course, exist, the truth is that most people have their vast majority of friends within their own race.

“More often than not, friendships are formed within racial ethnic groups,” says psychologist Skip Dine Young, psychology professor at Hanover College and the author of Psychology at the Movies. The likely reason for this is a phenomenon referred to as “sorting,” which claims that most people tend to befriend those who are similar to them politically, religiously and racially. Geographic location is also a factor, especially in more segregated communities.

The biggest issue, though, is simply the idea of shared experience, which forms the basis of most friendships. Two men with dissimilar backgrounds — different family culture growing up, different perception of the way the world interacts with them, etc. — may not find it as easy to bond as two men with more closely aligned backgrounds.

2) Age. While personality (and race, albeit less so) is also a factor, mismatched alien cop buddy movie Men In Black has a generational difference at its core. According to Greif, generational differences between men can be hard to overcome because of the nature of most male friendships. Unlike women, who form “face-to-face” friendships built on conversation, men usually have “shoulder-to-shoulder” friendships, which center around activities rather than talking. So while going to a game may work okay for two friends of much different ages, they may not be able to play ball together, which limits their options of what they can do together.

The biggest impediment age gaps offer to friendship in real life, of course, come from the simple fact that two men in different stages of their lives will have very different responsibilities and priorities. An older man, for example, may not be able to keep up with the activities of someone much younger. A man who’s just started a family, meanwhile, won’t have nearly as much free time as either a younger man with no family, or an older man whose kids don’t need him around 24/7. That’s why these friendships tend to work out better for cops in the movies: They have to spend all day with each other for their jobs, so finding downtime to hang out is less of an issue.

3) Socio-Economic Status. This is possibly a bigger issue than anything else. “Money can be a big divider,” says Greif. Yes, Trading Places shows a homeless guy and an aristocrat successfully teaming up, but even in movie-world, this requires a very contrived social experiment. In real life, “your socio-economic status determines where you spend your time, therefore it will limit your pool of friends,” says Young. Say, for example, you’re the one who’s better off, so you’re always picking up the check? This may breed resentment. Or say your pal keeps bugging you to go to Vegas, even though he knows you can’t afford it? These are the kinds of things many friendships won’t survive.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZjDbJQKDXCY

4) Personality. Almost every Mismatched Buddy Movie features people with opposing personalities — the straight-laced cop and the wildcard conman! The uptight family man and the foul-mouthed bachelor! — but sometimes this is the only divide, with race, class and everything else aligning fairly neatly (Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, for example). But does it make sense that two guys who have such opposite personalities would end up being best pals? Do opposites really attract?

According to Young, they don’t. “Social psychologists have looked at the two camps within popular thinking: The ‘birds of a feather flock together’ idea and the ‘opposites attract’ idea, and they’ve mostly landed on the side of ‘birds of a feather.’”

So while men of differing personalities may become friends, usually it’s their similarities that bind them together.

Overcoming the Obstacles

It’s not just the differences between the protagonists that present a challenge to these nascent friendships: There’s also the huge obstacle that they must work together to overcome. You might well assume that, for most dudes thrown together to fix a complex problem with someone they don’t yet like or trust, that problem would likely remain unsolved, and the resulting second act “break up” would be irreparable. And in cases where this obstacle takes the form of a betrayal — such as in Due Date, when Zach Galifianakis’ character reveals that he stole Robert Downey Jr.’s wallet at the beginning of the film (prompting their subsequent road trip) — you would be right: It would almost certainly terminate their friendship.

“Men don’t like to make up,” says Greif. “It tends to be, ‘If you do something to cross me, you’re out,’ and you generally stay out.” It’s not, he says, that men hold a grudge so much as they likely won’t bother to pursue that friendship, or find it important enough to reignite it, as women may do in similar circumstances.

But the idea of mismatched buddies bonding after overcoming some kind hardship or trauma together is far from Hollywood fantasy. In fact, says Greif, this is an extremely effective way to make lasting friendships. “According to Aristotle, who said a lot of things about friendship, ‘You have to have shared salt’ to make friends. Which doesn’t mean to break bread or dine with them, but that you had to go through a similar hardship.”

So in the end, is the appeal of the Mismatched Buddy Movie that, at its problem-solving core, it rings true to our experience of male friendship? Or is it really just a bit of escapism?

In all likelihood, it’s a little of both. “While men may connect to bits and pieces of these films, the appeal of the Mismatched Buddy Movie is that it’s a bit of wish fulfillment,” says Young. “Because it’s difficult for adult men to make and maintain meaningful male friendships.”

In other words, the ultimate, unfulfilled fantasy for many men is simply to make a real friend.

Ouch.

But Young notes that wish fulfillment doesn’t have to mean that these films are meaningless. He claims that Mismatched Buddy Movies can be “equipment for living,” giving us memorable examples and lessons to help us navigate the real world. A complex inter-racial friendship, for example, might be strengthened in its early stages by the memory of the rock-solid dude relationship formed by Lethal Weapon’s Riggs and Murtaugh.

This, it seems, may be the true appeal of the Mismatched Buddy Movie: That it gives us hope that one day, we’ll figure out a long-lasting friendship, too. Says Bray, “As opposed to the more nihilistic stories of heroes versus villains, buddy films can give us hope that we’ll have those connections: That we’re going to have a wingman or go on an adventure with somebody, or maybe we’re going to have somebody who gets to know us really well — and still likes us anyway.”

It’s the stuff manly dreams are made of.