Happy Endings Leave This Moviegoer Far From It

I had a debate with my mother recently when we were trying to decide whether to see the heart-wrenching Million Dollar Baby or the heart-wrenching-er Hotel Rwanda. She was having trouble deciding because she wanted to see a more "uplifiting" film. I countered that such movies were often bad and that movies with downer endings made the best movies and the best works of art. We compromised, of course, by seeing the more up-lifting of the two downers. But afterwards I got to thinking if my hypothesis were true. And if so, why?

Now, some problems. Of course, there is no accounting for taste. But let me assure you my taste is impeccable (no comments, please). Even so, how could you possibly quantify anything - you can't. Probably the biggest objection is, for those who know me, that maybe I'm just a no-fun sourpuss who can't stand to see other people happy, even fictional movie characters. My first response is: this might very well be the simplest explanation. My second response: this hypothesis and my own might not be mutually exclusive.

So I took a look at my top shelf of movies - what I consider to be not only my personal favorites, but the best films from an unbiased standpoint. Now I won't recount the whole list here, but this is what I found: out of 40 movies, 17 happy endings, 17 "downer" endings, and 6 ambiguous endings. So about 45% happy endings and 55% non-happy endings. This is likely significant when you consider the percentage of Hollywood happy endings is easily two-thirds and probably more like 80-90%.

Some examples? How about the heaviest movie of all time? Seven. This flick had rain for 2 1/2 hours, saw one of the protagonists commit a vengeful killing of his wife's murderer, and contained a few absloutely gruesome murder scenes. It also is great because it is on the short list for great scripts of all time, was particularly intriguing, and it had Morgan freeman saying Morgan Freeman things.

What about the Godfather trilogy? All three had saw Al Pacino stting in a chair the last scene either becoming a mob boss, reflecting sadly on his empty life, or dying. Not a real uplifter to be found. Yet the first part is rated by imdb.com as the greatest film of all time, and the second is considered the greatest sequal ever, if not the best of the series. The third, well, to be honest, never really happened, right? (It got nominated for Best Picture because it had the word "godfather" in the title. I'm gonna make a video of myself blogging for two hours, call it The Godfather IV and see if I can't get a Best Actor nod.)

Obscure but wonderful? Things To Do In Denver When You're Dead. A retired gangster living it straight is forced to pull "one last job" with a motley crue of has-beens. When the job goes wrong, the boss puts a contract on the whole team. You can see which way this is going. What arises is the best exploration of mortality that I've seen in a movie.

The list goes on: American Beauty, Schindler's List, American History X, Requiem For A Dream, Amadeus, The Sweet Hereafter.

Sure there's always The Shawshank Redemption and Forrest Gump; I'm not saying they aren't great movies. I'm sure by now you're absolutely positive that this is silly and I need to just stop. Judging from the movies that are most popular (and weighted properly for attendance), the movie-going public overwhelmingly sees movies that end at least somewhat happily ever after. Actually I think this just proves the point. Given that people have shown their willingness to see a bunch of bad movies just for a happy ending, I think movie producers and directors know that if their movie ends differently, it better be one damn fine film. There is just no market for a film that is neither critically acclaimed nor gives you a little something at the end to brighten your day. Not even straight-to-video.

Show me a downer, and I'll show you a film that explores human actions and emotions in interesting ways. Show me a happy ending, and I'll show you a director that just didn't have the market pressure to deliver the little things that make a good movie great. This is not to say that this is how it works out all the time or even most of the time; the odds are just worse, and there's a reason for it.

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