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Chris Hicks: Is our vocabulary as limited as the movies would have us believe?

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Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere in "Arbitrage."

Susan Sarandon and Richard Gere in “Arbitrage.”

Myles Aronowitz, Roadside Attractions

If people in other countries, other cultures, particularly in developing parts of the world, learn English from American movies, they must think we all have a very limited vocabulary.

So many films have characters saying the same cuss words over and over and over again that it’s hard not to wonder if that’s really the way the script was written, or if that’s just something the actors threw in because that’s the way they talk.

I’ve written about this before, I know, but it began bubbling up again after seeing “Arbitrage,” the new melodramatic thriller at the Broadway Centre theater downtown, where it’s been playing for several weeks now. It’s also the recipient of quite a few positive national reviews, many suggesting that Richard Gere, as a high-rolling Wall Street manipulator, could receive an Oscar nomination.

Gere is good, and so is the picture, although it’s another one of those films with a less-than-ethical guy at its core, and the film is structured in such a way that, naturally, it has us rooting for him. But you may find yourself both rooting for and against him.

The plot kicks into gear when Gere, a married family man who is cheating on his wife, is driving with his paramour late one night and dozes off, crashing the car and killing this much younger woman. Instead of calling police, he calls an innocent acquaintance to facilitate his escape, then later lies to the police and continues to cover it up. At the same time, he’s been juggling the books at his financial corporation but is very close to a deal that can save him, and the looming possibility of jail time would mean his ruin. As a tenacious police detective (Tim Roth) closes in and Gere’s wife (Susan Sarandon) debates whether she should cover for him, the film’s tension is ratcheted up.

OK, so first of all — he’s cheating on Susan Sarandon? What an idiot. And secondly, this is one of those movies that has a kind of 1970s anti-hero sensibility about it in that few of these characters are likable and even fewer have any integrity. And since the film’s message is dubious at best and you know that whatever the outcome it’s going to be unpleasant, it’s difficult to get too worked up about the problems this guy has brought upon himself.

Still, the film is well made, well cast and well acted, and it does get the adrenalin going.

Oh, it’s rated R. For one simple reason: Every character uses the f-word.

Hollywood’s favorite profanity is, in fact, so pervasive in this movie that it begins to take on an unintentionally humorous life of its own. Nearly every cast member gets to say it at least once, although Gere and especially Roth use it a lot, punctuating sentences with it as if they are uneducated and don’t know how to express themselves.

The funniest usage comes when a judge is lecturing Roth, and they have a bit of give and take, and then the judge — who has not used the word up to this point — orders him out of his chambers, using this profanity to give emphasis to his command. It’s so out of character and so out of the blue that I had to stifle a chuckle. The intended impact of this emphatic cuss word at that moment is muted by the fact that it’s been used so many times already by so many other characters. As a result it means nothing, and its usage here drains the scene of any power it might otherwise have held.

Some movies rely on that particular word so much that it wouldn’t surprise me to hear people in other countries around the world using it as they greet Americans, thinking it’s just a common term used by everyone all the time.

And what if it actually was used that commonly here? Can you see your classroom instructor dropping it into every other sentence? Or your secretary using it when she says there’s a call on line 2? Or your mother when you’re visiting? Or someone calling for a date? Or one of your children when she wishes you happy birthday?

Now I’m not so naïve as to think this particular profanity is not used on occasion, or with frequency in certain walks of life. I worked for a year on an aircraft assembly line in California, I was in the Army for three years and I’ve worked in various other situations where that word flew around freely. But not in every social situation, in every workplace, in every conversation, whether heated or calm.

Are screenwriters, or actors, really so limited in their vocabulary that they can’t think of any other way for characters to express themselves?

If that’s the case, they should return to school, take an English class and bury their noses in a dictionary or thesaurus.

E-MAIL: hicks@desnews.com