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End of the Line: Unearned Happy Endings…

I reviewed Baby Mama earlier today and – while I was impressed with the film’s willingness to tackle a somewhat controversial topic – I was less than impressed by the somewhat conventional ending tacked on to the film. And then I mellowed out a bit. “It is a comedy after all,” I reminded myself, in the hope that I would forgive the film because it wasn’t a black comedy – most lighthearted comedies call for a light-hearted ending, after all. Besides, this particular film isn’t the only film in recent memory to resort to a disappointingly conventional ending, so why does it bother me so much?

Not everybody gets a fairytale ending...

Note: As you may have guessed from the topic, I’ll be discussing endings here – particularly the one from Baby Mama. Consider yourself warned, there are spoilers ahead.

In fairness, certain endings we take for granted. In romantic movies, it’s an assumption that the two leads will work their difficulties out and end up together – occasionally we get a more mature approach, as in (500) Days of Summer, but it’s the exception rather than the rule. Similarly, in mindless action movies you are all but assured that the lead will make it through, the bad guy will die (or end up in prison) and the lead actress will hook up with the leading actor. Such things are taken for granted. And, to be honest, they don’t really bother me. I accept them when they happen.

A conventional ending on a reasonably entertaining film won’t provoke me to be particularly harsh. A sports film will typically see the “little guy” rally and climb to victory over his rival for a life-affirming ending. Again, I’ll recognise and praise an exception (Rocky comes to mind), but it’s not something that will typically both me as I sit down and watch a film. So Baby Mama really shouldn’t have bothered me as much as it did. It was, after all, a comedy. And, since there was no villain and it wasn’t a black comedy, it was safe to bet that everyone would get to live “happily ever after”. Nobody wants to leave the cinema on a downer, after all.

However, part of what I really enjoyed about Baby Mama was that it inherently based itself upon a premise that not everyone could live happily ever after. It dealt with surrogacy, where the surrogate was possibly pregnant with her own child and wanted to keep it from the woman who had paid her. There were two women and one baby. That’s a very high stakes and one that immediately draws emotional investment from the audience. If it is the surrogate mother’s baby, then our lead ends up broken hearted and alone. If it is the embryo originally implanted, then the surrogate will have to give her up. The movie hinges on the idea that there is no outcome where everybody wins.

So it rigs one.

Of course, all drama is “rigged”, so to speak. Fiction is inherently the creation of a writer, and is more densely structured and less random than “the real world”. The writer can do whatever he wants – from having an alien ship crash in the middle of a love scene to ending the second world war with a suicide bombing of Hitler. The problem is that this must usually be done without disengaging from your audience.

Wow, talk about a cliché ending...

And here’s the problem. At the start of the film, the lead is told that – with her uterus – she has a “one in a million” chance of getting pregnant. So guess what the revelation is when it turns out that the child inside her surrogate isn’t actually hers? Yes, she is somehow miraculously pregnant, despite only having sex once over the course of the film.

This doesn’t work, if only because the film gained points earlier on for not offering an easy answer. Surrogacy is a complicated matter – and the scenario presented in the film reflects the complex reality. How many would-be mothers end up heartbroken as a result of surrogate mothers changing their minds? Quite a few. It’s harrowing and horrible and a gut-wrenching situation. The movie earns the respect of its audience for daring to go there – for recognising an issue all too often ignores.

However, it cheats. Rather than acknowledging the consequences of the scenario it has played out – and one that it claims is far more representative of modern life than most would concede – it pulls a copout. A conception so incredibly unlikely it may as well be divine. The message seems to be: if your surrogacy scheme doesn’t work out, don’t worry; you’ve somehow earned a miracle pregnancy. And, for all the guts that the movie demonstrates in daring to present us with the scenario, that’s one punch that’s pulled.

Imagine, for a moment, how much of a copout it would have been had Precious – that harrowing and depressing story of inner city life – ended with the lead character finding a wining lotto ticket that allowed her to pull her way of the ghetto? Of course, Precious is a much more serious film that Baby Mama, but the idea is the same. Or if Dr. Strangelove had ended with the United States miraculously stopping the bomb (or the bomb not detonating for some reason)?

An ending like the one we got – a miracle out of left field – is par for the course in Hollywood, but I can’t help but feel that a movie which takes a lofty subject matter on its head (even in an admittedly playful fashion) owes it to that material not to cheapen it with a deus ex machina ending. Or maybe I’m just thinking too much on this.

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