Strangers in a Stranger Land: 10 Movie Characters Trying to Make Their Way in the West

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Strangers in a Stranger Land: 10 Movie Characters Trying to Make Their Way in the West

Last week, Netflix announced that it was pegging German film Look Who’s Back for worldwide release. Look Who’s Back imagines that Hitler, instead of dying, wakes up from some sort of cryo-sleep in 2015 Germany and wanders about the country trying to fit in somewhere. Hijinks ensue.

We’re pretty excited for the American release of Look Who’s Back, but it also got us thinking about other movies where characters have to adjust to modern Western society—a sort of who’s who of strangers in strange lands. We’ve ranked ten such cases, from worst-adjusted to best. While we considered examples such as Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles and Brooks from The Shawshank Redemption (tears), we only used films wherein the main character must make the adjustment. (We also left off films where the character doing the adjusting was not from our planet—that’s its own can of … aliens.)


10. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006)

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How well does he adjust? The first inclination is to say “not too well.” He gets run out of the Rodeo, out of the Southerners’ house, and out of the country after his Pamela stunt. But in all honesty, Borat is more about Americans settling into the new environment he sets. He brings out the worst in them; they think that because he’s a foreigner 1) who shares their backwards ideologies and 2) whom they will never see again, they let their guard down. Essentially, the American idiots meet the Kazakhstani idiot in the middle and have an idiot party. Well-adjusted? No, and I don’t want America to look like Borat’s Kazakhstan. (Which is not to say that I can’t laugh at Borat’s antics, because they’re damn funny.)


9. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

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This movie is as much about Bill and Ted adapting to the wildly disparate timescapes they traverse as it is about the historical figures they bring back with them. But once Beethoven, Socrates, Genghis Khan, and the rest of the gang are back in 1980s San Dimas, all hell breaks loose at the mall. Most of these guys and gals don’t even know English—they’ve never even heard of it—so they’re pretty much screwed when it comes to adjusting to their surroundings. It’s a goddamn miracle that Bill and Ted managed to wrangle them all up for a show-stopping history project, evidence of their ability to unite the world with their dictum of “Be excellent to each other … and party on, dudes!”


8. Elf (2003)

The root of the man-child character that Will Ferrell would play in his next twenty-odd movies, and the most adorable of them all, Buddy the Elf, is a gift to New York City. The Big Apple’s inhabitants don’t see it that way for most of the film, though, stepping on him in true NYC fashion. With that in mind, it’s sort of wonderful that he never becomes jaded or loses his bubbly optimism and childlike wonder the way, say, Brennan Huff grows up in Step Brothers. But I don’t know how well he would have done when January rolled around, since taking Zooey Deschanel’s Jovie as his wife probably required him to get a job—something we see that he can’t really hold down because he’s bursting with Christmas cheer. (Sure, the ending of the film depicts Buddy and Jovie with a baby visiting the North Pole, but what sort of private breakdown did Buddy have when he updated Santa on his life?)


7. George of the Jungle (1997)

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To be fair, George of the Jungle is more about Ursula (a very young Leslie Mann) adjusting to life in the jungle with Brendan Fraser’s ape-man than the other way around. Still, though, there’s a memorable sequence in which George has to travel to San Francisco, where he encounters the wonders of civilization for the first time. He discovers the beauty of coffee, rides atop a cable car, jams out on the bongos, and even rope swings to rescue a parasailer caught in the Bay Bridge’s suspension. But George’s heart never leaves the jungle, and if he had had to spend more than a brief while in San Francisco, he likely would’ve caused some serious shenanigans. One does not simply move from a perpetual Thoreau-like self-reliance to a fast-paced, 1990s American city and easily learn to live among other humans.


6. Good Bye, Lenin! (2003)

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The most dramatic film on this list, and quite different from the others in that the entire premise of the movie is a harebrained scheme to keep the formerly comatose Christiane Kerner from discovering that Germany has reunited—it’s an anti-adjustment film. The lengths to which her son Alex goes to maintain the deception make this film hilarious. But Good Bye Lenin!’s heart is quite serious, a meditation on the tumult of change and how it can destroy someone’s identity. It’s hard to give Christiane a “grade” on her adjustment to the new reality, because she dies without ever really having experienced it, but we can conjecture from revelations throughout the film that had she not suffered her initial heart attack, she might actually have been happy with the changes.


5. Mean Girls (2004)

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Perhaps the ultimate adjustment to Western culture, as Cady Heron doesn’t just manage to survive the nightmarish jungle of North Shore High … she becomes its queen. A few slip-ups at the beginning aside—saying “Jambo” to the unfriendly black hotties is probably the worst of them—she slides easily into Regina George’s crew with her pre-Lindsay Lohan’s-breakdown looks, remarkable intellect and perception, and ability to roll with any situation. Then again, can we really call becoming the biggest bitch in the school adjustment? It’s really only after the burn book comes to light, Cady bites the bullet, and then she manages to redeem herself that we can call her fully adjusted. But at that point, she has a beautiful boyfriend, great friends, and seeming happiness. Now if only the actual Lindsay Lohan took to real life so well.


4. Crocodile Dundee (1986)

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If you’re going to travel to America for the first time, it helps to be a charming badass from the Australian Outback. For all of the societal cues that Mick Dundee misses (that those fine women are hookers, that a bidet squirts water up your butt), he makes progress with his easy smile and his huge knife. Obviously, it also helps that he speaks English, albeit a version of the language filled with slang unfamiliar to his new friends. Yet for his ability to carry himself well in New York City, it’s clear that his heart remains in Australia—even though his proposed “walkabout” will take him through America, it’s more like he’s transplanting his home country here rather than assimilating. Fortunately, we don’t have to find out what would’ve happened on that journey, since Sue wises up and picks him over Richard.


3. Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery (1997)

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As much of a caricature as the world’s grooviest secret agent is, Austin Powers has to deal with some legitimate issues in his first film appearance—namely, that the idea of Free Love never made it out of Swingin’ London and that he missed out on thirty years of technological development. That first one, especially, puts some strain on his inevitable romance with the beautiful Vanessa Kensington. But seriously, who can resist Austin’s mojo? His superhuman sexiness and charm would enable him to get along in any era. Even a woman as strong as Vanessa can’t stay mad at him for very long. He’s got no reason to change.


2. Sleeper (1973)

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Woody Allen’s Miles does just about as well as you could expect a neurotic Woody Allen character to do upon suddenly finding himself 200 years in the future. Despite being shocked by the future diet and unwittingly stumbling into such incapacitating devices such as the pleasure orb and the Orgasmatron, he’s able to keep his wits about him enough to convincingly impersonate a robot and an Aries Project doctor, kidnap Luna (Diane Keaton), and save the day. (Of course, when Miles is brainwashed, he goes through a period of full adjustment to his new society, but that doesn’t really count.) The bottom line: anyone whose only beliefs are “sex and death” has essentially captured the time-transcending roots of human existence and should be able to get along anywhere.


1. Coming to America (1988)

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A classic life conflict plays out in Coming to America: tradition vs. progress. And Akeem is very much on the side of progress—so much so that he adapts to life in Queens without much problem at all. He’s enterprising, he’s determined, and he’s damn good with a stick. (Pity Samuel L. Jackson for underestimating him.) The usual difficulties faced by immigrants pale in comparison to Akeem’s struggle to separate from his royal legacy and find a woman he truly loves. Once he wins over Lisa, though, it’s easy to picture them living a fruitful life in New York, even if the luxuries of Zamunda’s royal family would be hard for anyone to turn down.


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