One of my favorite films had a character with anger management problems. He wanted to quit his prescription drugs for the problem. That character’s soliloquy to this therapist about it hooked me. The director made me feel sorry for this lead character.
So the theory is: good films always get the audience to feel pity for the lead character. Funny, smart, and likable are not enough. There must be full-on, what-a-sad-case pity.
Try it on any two similar movies. The better one always establishes its characters as more pathetic. Take these 2 recent movies’ Rotten Tomatoes ratings and US box office:
Date Night: 68% fresh, $123M.
Knight and Day 55% fresh, $49M.
I’ve seen both, and much preferred Date Night.
Date Night establishes from the opening shot that Steve Carell and Tina Fey are a terminally exhausted couple. The kids regularly wake them at 5am. Their date nights are boring, their careers are depressing, their friends are divorcing out of boredom, and they’re too tired for sex. They have chemistry, but the poor pathetic souls, they need sleep.
Knight and Day, on the other hand, treats Cruise and Diaz like movie stars. He’s a secret agent, she’s fixes vintage cars. They bump into each other, Cruise smiles enigmatically, and she’s dazzled. There’s a Maguffin, and the chase begins. No matter how well the film is executed, they are still beautiful people with awesome careers. No reason to pity the, so the audience doesn’t relate. And it lends the film a certain dated quality – there is something condescending and artificial about the story.
Contrast that to Jerry McGuire’s humiliation. Or heck, Ethan Hawke’s team getting wiped out in MI:1.
So, when making your film, look for pity in the script. If you don’t have any, add some. Poof! According to the theory, your movie will now be good.
(Here’s a great example – the tragic yet hysterical backstory of Happy Gilmore).