Plot

Genius Movie Concepts (Poorly Executed)

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.

4. Inception

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.

5. Memento

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.

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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?

Critically yours,
M.M. Jordahl

“A good opening and a good ending make for a good film, provided they come close together.” -Federico Fellini

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5 thoughts on “Genius Movie Concepts (Poorly Executed)”

  1. So I’m one of those people who’s always up in a titter about Memento. It’s pretty far up my favorite movie list, and while Christopher Nolan doesn’t usually deserve the hype (I agree with you completely on Inception), Memento does, mainly because it totally makes sense in chronological order:
    The hooker in the bathroom is there because Lenny told her to go in there after he had her imitate his wife. I guess this isn’t strictly necessary for the plot movie, but the whole thing is something his character would do, and it is needed to explain why he was burning his wife’s things; a plot point that both shows his emotional state as well as his willingness to destroy his own memory aids (which obviously becomes an extremely important part of the story).
    The chase scene happens because Dodd is trying to track down Jimmy, who Lenny killed and is now unknowingly impersonating. I can see that this would be confusing since Lenny is coincidentally supposed to be getting rid of Dodd when it happens. The chain of relationships that explain why and how Natalie got Lenny to agree to get rid of Dodd is a little more confusing, but explained if you look for it.
    And you are right, the first time Lenny meets Natalie is in Ferdy’s. Natalie wrote Jimmy (her boyfriend) a message to meet her there after the drug deal goes down, but since Lenny killed Jimmy and took his clothes/car, he finds the note in “his” pocket and assumes it is for him. So he shows up, drinks his saliva cocktail, and proceeds to think that Natalie had asked for him and is someone he’s already met. Lenny’s trust of Natalie is not real trust; he pretends to know her because he thinks he should know her and she never gives him indication otherwise. After that they both think they are using each other, but obviously Natalie is much better at it than Lenny. Natalie’s actions throughout the movie are a lot easier to understand if you just assume she’s a greedy bitch. She sees Lenny walk in the bar in Jimmy’s clothes, confirms he is the guy with the memory condition Jimmy told her about, and then proceeds to use him to get rid of Dodd since she knows he got rid of Jimmy, who she only cared about so far as he could get her drugs/money. Once she knows Jimmy is out of the picture she is just trying to get the money, or at least keep Dodd from trying to collect from her.
    The length of time Lenny is able to remember things is variable just because that’s how memory works. Depending on how distracted/stressed you are your short-term memory can be lost immediately or retained for several minutes. And even in the final (first?) scene where Lenny kills Jimmy and sets up Teddy’s eventual death, Lenny isn’t necessarily keeping track of everything that happened. He writes Teddy’s license plate and “Do not believe his lies” down only because he is angry that Teddy accuses him of having made-up a substantial portion of his memories less than 3 minutes ago. It’s not actually implied that he remembers killing Jimmy, and the illogical of stealing his murder victim’s car full of drug money (as Teddy points out) actually implies that he has already forgotten the beginning of the scene.
    As for replacing Sammy’s story with his own, that is not part of his condition. Assuming that the suggestion that Sammy’s story is really Lenny’s is true (Teddy is a lying sack of shit after all), is not a result of his condition, but a result of Lenny’s inability to accept that he is responsible for his wife’s death. The larger point to Memento, if there is one, is that memory is an insubstantial thing, and the fact that severe psychological trauma can cause people to have false/inaccurate memories is both a true statement and crucial part of the movie’s philosophical base.
    So that is why I think you’re wrong (about Memento).
    It’s amazing how much procrastination will help me focus on things not at all related to what I should be doing. I basically rewatched the movie with the help of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Memento_Timeline.png to write this comment. Also, you should look at http://www.filmforensics.com/autopsy/2007/10/02/memento-in-chronological-order/ (A guy who had never seen the movie before had his friend edit a copy into chronological order and then took notes while he watched it).

    1. 1. I didn’t say that the hooker didn’t make sense for his character. It does, and it is a neat way to show how he feels about his wife. My issue with it is that it isn’t situated within the chronology of the movie, which is a horribly confusing thing to do when you have a movie that doesn’t move in chronological order. The scene with the hooker could have happened anywhere along the lines, and we’re given no clues as to where, exactly, in his life it happened. Essentially, it is only there because the director was impressed with his own genius in coming up with it–not because it’s relevant to the movie (his relationship with his wife’s memory was already well established without the extra scene). In my book, that’s a poor directorial choice.

      2. Dodd chasing Lenny makes sense, but Lenny chasing Dodd does not. For one thing, Lenny never wrote down what he was chasing Dodd for–that’s clearly established in the scene where he’s trying to figure out what to do with the man in the closet. Considering that his encounter with Natalie (the motivation for beating up Dodd) happened at LEAST an hour before he actually encountered Dodd, you would expect him to forget about it entirely, by the rules of the movie itself. But he didn’t, because it was convenient for the plot for him to remember. Just like it was convenient for the plot for him to forget his run-in with Natalie in only a few seconds.

      3. The Ferdy’s coaster has Natalie’s handwriting on it. It is well established earlier in the movie that Lenny doesn’t trust handwriting other than his own, so why does he trust Natalie’s? He shouldn’t, but it is convenient for the plot if he does. Again, breaking the rules of the movie’s universe to suit the director’s needs. Lazy writing. (Also worth noting: anyone watching the movie in “chronological order” would miss this, because he talks about the handwriting thing at the “end” of the movie–or the “beginning” if you are watching the original cut.)

      And, Lenny does trust Natalie–enough to go to sleep at her apartment, in her bed. Call me crazy, but if I had a condition like that, I would NEVER go to bed with anyone, purely due to the confusion it would cause me in the morning. Much less someone I had just met, of whom I had no photographic or written record either in my pockets or in my body tattoos.

      4. If he doesn’t remember killing Jimmy, why does he remember the conversation about Teddy being a John G.? Why does he remember that Jimmy knew about Sammy by the time Teddy confronts him, especially after he’s been in conversation with Teddy for several minutes? Why doesn’t he drive away in the truck, which is closer and makes a much easier getaway, instead of going back to get the picture of the jag to make it “his” car?

      And while we’re on the subject–why DID he steal Jimmy’s clothes and car? It’s a completely illogical move, even if Jimmy were THE John G. Taking on the identity of the man who killed his wife? In what universe is that a good call?

      There are far more questions here than answers, and that’s just plain bad writing. Leonard doesn’t act as a real person–he acts as a plot device, designed only to do what Nolan needs him to do in the moment.

      5. Sammy’s story being unrelated to his condition is fine, but I still have an issue with it on the basis of his condition. If you already have a character whose memory is shot to all hell, the last thing you should do is put another, entirely unrelated level of memory confusion on top of it. Again, bad directorial choice. (Incidentally, I would like to point out that this is the exact same trope used in Shutter Island to explain why DiCaprio doesn’t remember how his wife and kids really died–how original, Hollywood.)

      And that’s why YOU are wrong about Memento. :P

      I would like to point out, though, that I don’t totally hate it. Memento is by far and away the best movie on this list. But it SHOULD have been much, much better. Nolan’s enthrallment with his own genius got in the way of allowing the character space to breathe and behave as came naturally to him. And that’s one of the worst mistakes a director/writer can make.

  2. Sliding Doors has a fun premise, but I certainly agree with your criticisms. For another take on something kind of like Sliding Doors, check out the foreign film Run Lola Run. The events of the movie are very different, but it encompasses the same “tiny, tiny actions change everything” theme. It’s not perfect, but I enjoyed it.

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