Virtuous superiority, smug beyond debate

WITH A FAIR AMOUNT of online hoo-hah and a deserved measure of academic disdain, the English language this week acquired its millionth word — “Web 2.0″ — an achievement supposedly merited on the basis of the term having achieved a certain degree of widespread usage. But to me it remains a term, not a word, given that the “word” part of it already exists, in duplicate, as it happens.

So I would like to propose an alternate millionth word, one that sprang to mind as I attempted to pinpoint the reasons for my extremely adverse reaction to a new film last weekend:

smuggie (smug e) n. An individual endowed with an unwarranted sense of superiority over others; a person so sure of cultivated convictions that no doubt or criticism is countenanced; a complacent, self-satisfied twat.

A good word, I should think, and one perhaps useful in an age when no one appears to have convincing answers to solve all our problems but a time nonetheless characterized by niche groups, intolerant religious thinking, political correctness police, shout-downs posing as debates and hunkered-down camps of convinced right-thinkers who will brook no disagreement or skepticism.

IN THE OLD DAYS, a smuggie would probably have most readily been equated with a snob, an elite, possibly Ivy League clubby type rife with prejudices, a strong whiff of intellectual superiority and an undeniable sense of entitlement. Such creatures still exist, but the ever-increasing speed of societal and historical shifts is quickly pushing them into increasing irrelevance.

All the same, old-fashioned snobs were often possessed of dazzling intelligence, quick wit and scabrous humor, which is more than can be said for the new smuggie breed, which seems immune to any humor designed for any purpose other than to caricature those of whom it disapproves. At least that’s the impression I take away from “Away We Go,” a breezy, all but insufferable film quickly made by director Sam Mendes as an acknowledged vacation after the angst of “Revolutionary Road” but that conceals a sack of poison and contempt at least as potent as that contained by the recent adaptation of Richard Yates’ novel.

Snobs often have generations of breeding as an excuse for their often-inexcusable attitudes; smuggies, on the other hand, seem to suffer from the certainty of the recently converted, and preferably possess the pedigree of having been part of the vaguely defined counterculture, even if only by going vegan, purchasing a Prius or blindly buying everything said in “An Inconvenient Truth” by Al Gore, who, by virtue of his statement that his views on “global warming” are beyond debate, would seem to qualify as the patron saint of humorless smuggies.

IT ALWAYS PERPLEXES me when talented artists create fictional versions of themselves but strip the characters of their own creative passion and intellectual distinction in the process, thus ripping out their essence. Certainly this is the case with what screenwriters Dave Eggers and his wife Vendela Vida do in “Away We Go.” Played agreeably enough by a virtually unrecognizable John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph, whose character is in the final months of pregnancy, Burt and Verona are utterly unremarkable people made to appear virtuous, even saintly, in comparison to everyone else they encounter on their journey to find a place to settle down. Now into their mid-30s, they have absolutely nothing to show for themselves, no accomplishments, not even strong convictions, other than Verona’s determination never to get married.

In and of themselves, the two are not smug; they’re neither intellectually developed nor presumptuous enough for that. But their position in the world forcibly becomes one of superiority based on what we see of the rest of the human race in one of the most caricatured renderings of it I’ve ever seen outside of a comicstrip or an overt work of propaganda. Burt’s parents, played by Jeff Daniels and Catherine O’Hara, are blithely self-centered; Verona’s old boss (Allison Janney) is a drunken floozy who desperately attempts to persuade them to join her in barren Arizona; worse, in the academic realms of Madison, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Josh Hamilton represent the last word in p.c. condescension.

The couple’s subsequent stops in Miami and Montreal aren’t quite as dreadful but are still bad enough to warrant their decision to opt out of society as much as possible by finding a remote house by the seashore where they can indulge their solipsism to their hearts’ content. It’s not that the characters are self-conscious smuggies, but that the writers and filmmakers are by default; they intend for the supporting characters to be uniformly blind to their own deficiencies but only implicitly insist that the leads are superior to everyone else by virtue of their emotional in-touchness. They never accept that Burt and Verona are, in their own way, just as clueless as everyone they’ve encountered; the leads just haven’t bought into life solutions that make them feel they’ve found an answer.

It was instructive to catch “Away We Go” on the same day I saw “The Hangover.” Both are portraits of seriously stunted growth, of people who have resisted growing up. In this case, the gross, commercially intended movie has it all over the refined art film. What’s great about “The Hangover” is that, beneath the boisterous, outrageous comedy lies a disturbing illustration not only of arrested development but of the pronounced differences between men and women — avoidance versus over-anxiety — and of the extremes of losing control (to the point of not remembering anything) and control freakishness. It’s a fine example of popular entertainment (with hidden content that’s there if you want it) that knows what it’s about far better than a self-consciously composed artifact for the elite.

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