Most big-budget movies follow a very specific formula, which is why so many of them feel like copies of one another. There’s something to be said for using this formula, but not everybody does. It’s nice to break from form, and some stories downright require it–which is when we get truly unique films like Fight Club and Love, Actually (which have likely never been mentioned in the same sentence before).
But just because you have a great plot concept doesn’t mean it’s right for your movie, or even that you have the talent to pull it off. One of the most important abilities any creator needs is to know when they’re in over their heads. This is my list of five films that started with a brilliant idea–and then squandered it. These are, of course, only my opinion. Feel free to disagree with me, because I’m sure you will. Oh, and: SPOILERS.
Also, I’ve limited myself here to only movies I’ve actually seen. I’m sure there are plenty of examples of unique plotting, both good and bad, out in the wide world of film that I haven’t encountered yet. If you know of one, tell me about it! I am always looking for clever twists on traditional movie structure. :)
1. Sliding Doors
Sliding Doors is the least well-known of the movies on this list, which is why I’ve started off with it. I don’t know why this movie went so far under the radar, because the concept for it is genius. Essentially, Gwyneth Paltrow gets fired from her job, and on the way home she catches the train, and misses it. You heard me: she does both. From there, the movie branches out into two separate timelines: one in which she makes the train and gets home in time to catch her boyfriend cheating on her, and one in which she doesn’t. The movie is an exploration of the idea of destiny, and how even the tiniest of things can affect your entire life. It’s brilliant.
But here’s the problem: the characters. While Sliding Doors has enough high-concept to be Oscar worthy, its characters are barely worthy of late-night sitcom. Gwyneth Paltrow plays a long-suffering, meek and largely uninteresting woman who allows the world to do what it will with her, while her love interest (John Hannah) is essentially a Hugh Grant knock-off. And Paltrow’s ex-boyfriend and his shrill-voiced girl-on-the-side? They might as well have been dressed in Wiley Coyote costumes, because they were nothing short of cartoonish. Thus, what should have been a fascinating study of the ways life can effect a personality became a half-hearted gesture toward romantic comedy.
2. Melinda & Melinda
Despite the fact that it stars Will Ferrell (I usually avoid his feature films like the plague; I can only take his comic stylings in small amounts), Melinda & Melinda attracted my attention because of what it promised: an in-depth study of genre. The movie opens on a group of high-brow film critics and creators, who are debating the merits of comedy versus tragedy over their dinner. To illustrate their independent points, the pro-tragedy and pro-comedy advocates each do their own treatment of the “same story”–the story of Melinda–in an attempt to prove that their preferred genre is the better option. Both stories feature the same female lead (Radha Mitchell), with Will Ferrell as her love interest in the comedy and Chiwetel Ejiofor in the tragedy (he would later to on to bigger and much better things when he starred as the Operative in Serenity, which you should go watch right now if you haven’t seen it seriously stop reading this and go go go).
I use quotations for “same story,” because it isn’t the same story, which is the fatal flaw in this movie. The plot diverge in several key places, which makes them different stories entirely and completely defeats the original concept. This divergence isn’t obvious at first, but quickly becomes apparent as the film progresses. Plus, there’s a rather questionable treatment of suicide in the film, and the characters, again, suffer from a terrible case of The Flats. In the end, this movie turned into an almost complete waste of time, saved only by the ever-entertaining presence of Wallace Shawn–of whom there was far too little.
3. Vantage Point
When I first saw the trailers for Vantage Point, I was thrilled by the concept. All too often, stories are limited by the perspective of the protagonist, whose opinions and limitations in turn limit the story and make it impossible to really connect with any other characters. By proposing to tell the same story from several different character’s perspectives, Vantage Point promised to offer a fascinating look at the different shades of grey always present at any real-life event.
But that’s not what it did. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, since it is, at its heart, an action movie: lots of guns, people shouting unnecessarily, forced intrigue, horribly flat characters, unidentified “foreign” terrorists, etc. Despite the fact that Vantage Point even sided with the terrorists for a while, giving us their perspective on the story, it didn’t offer any insight into their characters–merely painted them as the Bad Guys, exactly the same way all the other characters did. And none of the pro-offered “perspectives” actually gave any perspective on the story–just told the exact same thing with a slightly different voice.
This one is a biggie, and should arguably be moved to the end of the list in terms of its popularity, but I have my reasons for putting it here. Like everyone else, I fell for the hype and went to see this movie in theatres, in IMAX 3D, and I was glad I did: like Avatar, the visual effects alone were reason enough to pay the extra money (similarities end there; Avatar has no re-watch value for me whatsoever). And my criticism of this movie isn’t actually all that harsh. Yes, the characters were flat and the dialogue was trite and the whole thing took itself too seriously, but it did a good job of exploring the ideas it set out to explore and the mise-en-scene was beautiful, so on the whole I was pretty happy with it. But not totally happy, or else it wouldn’t be on this list.
The problem I have with Inception is that it didn’t follow its own logic. For one thing, the dreams were entirely un-dreamlike: sets were consistent, background characters never interfered, physics was essentially intact, time operated in a predictable manner and the story moved in perfect chronological order. When was the last time you had a dream that made chronological sense? I understand that for a film to exactly replicate a dream is impossible, as films still have to move the story forward and the audience has to be able to follow it, but I would have liked to see at least a little nod to the bizarre hilarity of the dream world. Where are the dancing animals in funny hats? How about the random ability to speak a foreign language? Or even just inappropriate background music? Something that isn’t straight-up Serious Drama, because dreams are anything but serious.
Additionally, it will never stop bothering me that when the car was crashing on the first level, that weightlessless carried through to the second level–but not the third. Logic, Inception. You have to follow your own.
Inception wasn’t the last one on this list because Memento had to be. Memento is everybody’s go-to movie when it comes to innovative plotting. Everybody is always up in a titter about it, saying how great it is, and how genius the idea of doing a movie backward is, and how brilliantly it’s written and all that jazz. I will happily admit that it is a genius idea–and the perfect story to do it. It’s no fun to do the story backward if the characters are lording their knowledge over the audience the whole time (though there are plenty of movies that do it, to poor effect), so Leonard’s memory loss is a clutch move that makes this movie well worth watching.
But the thing is, if you put the story together into chronological order, it doesn’t work. At all. For one thing, there are several moments that are never situated in the story (the hooker in the bathroom, the chase through the trailer park). For another, you never actually see him meet Natalie; there’s the moment where she mistakes him for Jimmy, and the moment in the bar, but their original connection is never explained. Presumably he got the Ferdy’s coaster from Jimmy, but for someone as distrustful as Leonard to trust Natalie, she has to have done something extraordinary. And she didn’t. Plus, the length of time that Leonard can remember things varies wildly, apparently depending on its usefulness to the plot of the movie. He remembers exactly what he’s doing through a full ten-minute sequence at the end of the movie, while he forgets things in seconds in other scenes. Inconsistent.
For another, the entire idea that he replaced Sammy’s story with his own is silly, especially when you consider that he didn’t have memory loss before the attack. He would remember everything about Sammy just fine. Self-delusion in movies is usually explained by mental illness (Shutter Island, for example), but Leonard’s condition is very clearly defined–and it doesn’t allow for changing memories before his injury.
So there you have it. 5 movies that should have been way better, in my opinion. What do you think? Did I get it right? Are there any other movies you would put in this category?
“A good opening and a good ending make for a good film, provided they come close together.” -Federico Fellini