Poverty, True Love, Overcoming Extreme Odds, Reaching your Dreams, Getting the Girl. . .
How many times have you seen/read that story?
People complain about predictability all the time. It's a sad fact of life, if you're over 25 you probably know every story. Hell, if you were alert as a child, you knew every story before you finished puberty. Many successful writers handing out free advice to noob writers on the internets say something like: "It's not how original your story is, it's how brilliantly you tell it!" That's true, up to a point. Then come politics, fashion and audience caprice. My cases in point are two movies with the exact same themes stated above:
Slumdog Millionaire, winner of 8 Oscars
Zack and Miri make a Porno, winner– not so much
I can hear the howls of indignation already. Slumdog Millionaire is, after all, a beautifully filmed and told story, full of social relevance, with an uplifting ending. Zack and Miri is embarrassing, crass, and full of snarky social commentary. How can I dare to compare them? *Points to Above* Because they're the same story. Because both of them are brilliant, even though they're both desperately predictable if you've been alive for more than a decade or two. Neither of these movies is Bladerunner (beautifully filmed, full of social relevance and snarky social commentary, groundbreaking in too many ways to count, not very predictable), but they're both really good movies. They both also rely on a lot of Deux ex Machina.
Really. The chaiwalla just happens to know the answers because of circumstance and occasionally dumb luck. Zack and Miri are both helped and hindered by extreme and capricious fate. You can see these moments coming in both movies as though they were semi-tractor trailer rigs pulling double trailers bearing down on you, horns blowing and lights flashing. But the way these moments are executed are so masterful that you're left with that all important element of surprise even so.
Both movies wrap up in ways that are upbeat, popular ways to end this sort of story. The Deux ex Machina gets turned off so that the heroes have to win their ending, making for more satisfying conclusions.
So why did one movie win eight Academy Awards, and the other gets regularly panned as predictable, even though it's less predictable than the winner? I suspect here is where politics, fashion and puritanism come in.
Slumdog Millionare is set in a setting (India) and addressing issues (sex slave trade, caste discrimination) that are current pet issues with the left (traditionally the political inclination of artistic types), while simultaneously producing a story that's palatable to the the political right– likable boy rescues tragic girl, sex is bad, sweet as cotton candy true love forever and ever happily ever after.
Zack and Miri is set in Yankeeland with characters that you alternately love and despise and has both a sex positive message (only acceptable to freaks on the far left) and a bunch of send-ups for everyone, spoofing the concept of childhood sweethearts, gay romance, racism in porn, the extremes of chasing the American Dream and a bunch of other things too numerous to mention. It probably has something to offend pretty much everyone on the planet. It's excellent Burlesque.
I recommend Slumdog Millionare to anyone and everyone. Zack and Miri, however, I'm more careful about. You have to be either an oblivious observer who likes porny stuff or someone who is really smart and groovy to get this film. And that may be the other reason, beyond the politics, fashion and puritanism that Zack and Miri is problematic. It's not an easy movie. Slumdog is easy. People *like* easy. I guess this means if you want a bestseller on the NYT list or a hit movie, you should go for predictable, easy, fashionable and yet with enough vision and sparkle to keep your audience surprised. Not an easy recipe!
I'll be over in the other corner, enjoying the "hard" stories. 😉