The Power Behind the Idea: Hollywood's Fascination With Five Familiar Movie Plots and Why Viewers Love Them
What makes for a good Hollywood story? Could it be one that tugs at the heartstrings or makes audiences squirm in their seats in total discomfort? That's the true testament of a good movie idea. One that makes you think and not possibly like what you come up with on the drive home. If all endings were happy or logical, nothing would be challenging and viewers might as well stay home and watch reality television in droves. Let's examine the art of movie stoytelling and what makes a good one stand out.
Once upon a time, there used to be a number of diverse movie plots that moviegoers saw on the big screen on a weekly basis. Nowadays, viewers are subjected to a few selected plots and watered down remakes that rehashed original stories that have been altered by time, and not for the better. Certain directors like to think outside the box when it comes to story (Christopher Nolan's Inception is a clear standout that will likely be copied at some point with less than stellar results). It's time to look out your local movie listings and boil down what types of movies are playing at your nearby cineplex. Are the stories very similiar or as different as can be? Are they morality plays, love stories or carefully dark examinations on the human condition? Here are a list of five plot ideas that have been done before, often with stellar results, and the directors who love to use them religiously. Read on to see if your favorite movie is among them or should be add to the growing list.
Inappropriate Relationships/Age Dilemma- This plot point followed movie characters who are stuck in their comfort zones, until something happens that makes them re-think their priorities. Director Louis Malle explored some disturbing possibilies and moral debates in his films, including 1978's Pretty Baby which had a young girl (Brooke Shields) entering the world of prostitution and her questionable relationship with an older man (Keith Carradine) that sent shivers down the spines of every viewer. Malle captured the seedy presence of a New Orleans brothel that made every resident feel like family, until it was time to get to work. That's when the cold reality set in that life wasn't as glamorous as it appeared to be. Malle poked at controversy with this movie with such a strong subject manner and using a very young Shields to portray the title character. He also explored another touchy relationship in 1992's Damage where a powerful older man (Jeremy Irons) was in love and in a very physical relationship with his son's girlfriend (Juliette Binoche). Their relationship wasn't meant to last, but neither cared until it was too late to turn back. In his directorial career, Malle tested audiences by peaking their curiosity and making them back away from fright at the same time, because they too feel guilty for being intrigued for what they can't have as well. Sadly, these films wouldn't fare too well in today's movie world, but they would likely be slapped with harsher ratings and certain uncomfortable scenes would likely get cut. (Look at movies like Shame to see why ratings tend to stigmatize a movie.) Rent both movies to test your boundaries and your own comfort levels. Malle would want you to.
Love and Duty- When it comes to love, Director Woody Allen tended to make his movies a little more analytical. Okay, he focused on his personal neurotic dating habits and projected them onto his protagonists, which he often played himself in his earlier movies. In 1986's Hannah and Her Sisters, he played Mickey a hypochondriac who began a relationship with his ex-wife's sister (Dianne Wiest) despite both of their doubts. In 1989's Crimes and Misdemeanors, Judah (Martin Landau) had to choose being married to one woman and his longtime mistress (Anjelica Huston). He chose to stay with his wife, but he also had to choose between having his mistress killed or allow her to expose his affair to his loved ones. Allen tended to turn to comedy to make viewers laugh while at the same time making them wonder what they would do if they were in Judah's shoes or at the very least wish they were glad that they weren't him. Nowadays, Allen's seeks for more modern twists to his past inspirations. In 2005's Match Point, a married man had to choose between a beautiful femme fatale (Scarlett Johansson) and a rich heiress (Emily Mortimer) for financial security. Of course, he made a very fatal move that will and should haunt him for the rest of his life. A lesson definitely lesson for people stuck in a peronal dilemma of their own making. Think before you leap into the frying pan.
Human Nature/Secret Desires- When it comes to human darkness, Director David Cronenberg really likes to test boundaries. In 1988's Dead Ringers, Jeremy Irons played identical twin Gynecologists named Beverly and Elliot Mantle. The twins used their deep connection to manipulate people, especially women, without their knowledge. Of course, the dynamic changed when one brother fell in love with an actress named Claire (Genevieve Bujold) that ended up fracturing their connection because both twins couldn't be with her. Finally, their disconnect left one with the powerful decision of whether to destroy the one person who knew him best or let him go. The answer, and the final bloody conclusion, was all the more frightening. He had one misfire with the controversial Crash, which mixed sex and car accidents. The subject manner was simply too jarring for some viewers to handle, but it's still worth watching nonetheless for the very adventurous at heart. Cronenberg's more recent examples of his cinematic examination of darkness are Eastern Promises and A Dangerous Methods which took harrowing looks at how sex and crime can change a man from the ground up. His latest star player is Viggo Mortensen who can alternate from a Russian Gangster to Dr. Freud himself. A work of art inded.
Crime Pays and Destroys- Directors Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese have made their careers on portraying how organized crime can allow a man to rise and fall just as quickly and bloody. Coppola had the Godfather saga to hang his directorial hat on, but Scorsese had 1990s Goodfellas and 2006's The Departed as his gold standard. He didn't win the Best Director Oscar until Departed, which was well deserved in its own right. Scorsese coaxed out a relatively sedate performance from Jack Nicholson that actually made play against type for most of the film as a crime kingpin who was smart, but now as smart Matt Damon's corrupt cop. The Departed examined how the cops and criminals were both impacted by crime and how there were casualties on both sides of the equation. Sure, there are way too stereotypes in mobster movies, but audiences stick around for the story and not the accuracy. They also want to see criminals get what they deserve in the end.
The Hero Saga- When it comes to hero stories, Steven Spielberg reigned supreme in telling a credible and emotional story at the same. Look at his latest movie War Horse, which followed a boy's relationship with his beloved horse Joey who went through a World War to get home to him. Another classic example of Spielberg's fascination with heroes is the Indiana Jones' movies which followed the charming hero on his various quests for adventure and survival. In Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jones (Harrison Ford) battled Nazis and a strong willed woman (Karen Allen) for a special treasure that had the power to help and destroy whoever touched it. Audiences loved to watch Jones and his highjinks because of Ford's grizzled charm as he mucked his way through jungle and other places. Unfortunately, the sequels haven't entirely lived up to the same standard. Watch the originals the three sequels right after to see why the first one ranked supreme.
In the end, it's the ideas that make movies succeed and the directors to help craft each story to fit their directorial styles. Scorsese's preference to focus on landscape scenes can be fascinating visuals, but they tend to drag on in some movies for far too long. Cronenberg's visual preference is stark contrasts between light and dark moods between characters and the places they visited daily. Some ideas are a hit (Raging Bull and War Horse) and others are a disaster (Crash and The Godfather Part III). Originality doesn't necessarily matter, unless they idea isn't sold properly. If it isn't, it won't work regardless of a clever idea or a famous director helming it. A failure is a failure in any form.