Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Third-act failures

Illustration for article titled Third-act failures
AVQ&AWelcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences.

After reading Mr. Rabin’s My Year Of Flops piece on The Invention Of Lying, in which he submits that the third act involving Gervais’ pursuit of Jennifer Garner nearly kills the film, I was curious whether the staff of The A.V. Club has other examples where a third act or ending killed their enjoyment of an otherwise good film. Mine is an obvious choice: Good Will Hunting. I find it two-thirds (maybe even seven-eighths) fascinating, with Gus Van Sant’s direction and the Elliott Smith-dominated soundtrack. However, the “It’s not your fault”/Matt Damon-breaks-down-crying-in-Robin Williams’-arms scene kills it for me. If I catch it on cable, I stop watching before that scene occurs. —D.J. Kramer


Tasha Robinson 
The third-act problem is generally why I don’t watch romantic comedies, which tend to be about people behaving in unlikely but often funny ways right up until the unearned ending, where they turn into treacly bowls of mush, and we’re supposed to care. It always horks me off that when a couple of entertaining but unbelievable caricatures suddenly turn sentimental, we’re supposed to ignore all the bile that came before and go “Awwwwwwwww!” as our heartstrings are plucked. The example that most instantly leaps to mind is Chris Columbus’ 1995 film Nine Months. It isn’t a great film by any standards (it has Robin Williams as a wackily incompetent Russian doctor, for one thing) but it has some really amusing business involving Hugh Grant as a hateful curmudgeon whose girlfriend gets pregnant, leading him to contemplate exactly how much he doesn’t want children. Grant is charming as ever, but with a serious dose of bitter nastiness long before he did About A Boy. Jeff Goldblum is hilarious, pulling off some straight-faced absurdism that my boyfriend and I still quote today. And the movie actually acknowledges that there might be reasons to avoid having kids. And then in the third act, Grant sees his child on an ultrasound and fakey tears well up in his eyes as he whispers to the camera about how he can see his baby’s widdle heart beating. It’s thoroughly gagsome, one of the lousiest attempted audience manipulations I’ve ever seen, and completely at odds with his character and with the comedy of the rest of the film. It’s also unbelievable even by the genre’s shaky standards. Better another 10 minutes of Robin Williams riffing than Hugh Grant sobbing glycerin tears and trying to look deeply moved.

Zack Handlen
I love Sam Raimi movies. I can still remember watching Army Of Darkness for the first time. I consider A Simple Plan one of the greatest modern noirs ever made. I still wish Darkman had become the franchise it so richly deserved to be, and I can actually find nice things to say about Spider-Man 3. So I should’ve loved Drag Me To Hell more than I love sunshine and puppies, and for the first three-quarters of the movie, I did. Alison Lohman gets cursed by a toothless gypsy woman, giving Lohman three days to try to avoid seemingly inevitable damnation—not the most original story, but a solid framework on which to hang any number of jump scares, gross-out gags, and freaky atmospherics. Raimi is more than up to the task, coming up with some of his most effective sequences in years (the seance is a perfect example of funny-scary), aided by a cast led by the winningly game Lohman, who manages to make kitten-murder sympathetic. But I hate this movie. It upset me for days, and I still get pulled into pointless bitching about it whenever anyone dares mention the title, because in the end (spoiler!), she gets dragged to hell. Look, yes, I know it’s in the title, and I know that’s the accepted format for this kind of story, but that doesn’t make the conclusion any less painful. The implied moralism (some have argued that Raimi was trying to comment on the black-and-white rigidity of EC Comics, but I think that’s giving him too much credit) is unsatisfying and trite, and it reduces the whole running time to a series of pointless, empty gestures, a dead-end dragged out so long that it fools viewers into thinking there might be a way out. Plus, the actual scripting is embarrassingly stupid. An homage that simply repeats the mistakes of the past without reflection is just plain fucking lazy. I tried to watch Drag again after it came out on Blu-ray, hoping that if I knew the ending going in, I’d be able to enjoy the ride more, but I had to turn it off after 10 minutes. Others can praise Drag as a return to form. To me, it’s a hollow bit of mean-spirited hackwork from a director I know damn well can do better.


Scott Gordon
Does it count if the horrible ending simultaneously make the movie more painful and reinforces the whole point of the movie? If so, I’d like to call David Cronenberg’s The Fly, a movie I can’t help but admire for how ashamed and sick it makes me feel. The ending doesn’t ruin the film for me, just makes me go, “Well shit, so much for any hope of another way out of that impending doom.” Come to think of it, I sort of feel the same way about Drag Me To Hell. Such a dickslap of an ending, yet somehow it just makes sense.

Scott Tobias
I don’t know if “ruined” is the right word exactly, but the third-act twist in Bill Paxton’s directorial debut, Frailty, still has me completely flummoxed, and not necessarily in a good way. For much of its running time, the film is an effective, memorably atmospheric horror-thriller about a father (Paxton) whose religious visions prompt him (and his sons, who are sometimes unwilling accomplices) to destroy “demons” whose identities were revealed to him by angels. Dubbed the “God’s Hand” serial killer, this mad prophet can “see” the sins his victims have committed, even though we in the audience can’t, which naturally leads us to assume that this crazy Bible-thumper is killing innocent people. Then, in one astonishing sequence, we find out the truth, which is surprising and troubling to say the least. Say this for Frailty: It’s rare for a movie to be pro-serial killer.


Nathan Rabin
I yield to few in my love of Mike Judge. The man is a genius, but his films Idiocracy and Extract don’t build to a satisfying conclusion so much as they run out of steam, putter around aimlessly, and gradually just end. With Idiocracy, that meant wrapping up a brilliant premise far too neatly and succinctly (I, along with many others, hope there’s a director’s cut out there somewhere that doesn’t feel like it was edited by an accountant at Fox), while the engaging, messy workplace/middle-age-crisis comedy Extract just sort of shambles to a conclusion. Extract is a funny, observant mess of a movie, but sweet fancy Moses, does Judge need someone to help him with his third acts.

Leonard Pierce
I hate to pile on poor Mike Judge here, but while Office Space is a near-universally beloved cult hit, I always felt it was half of a great movie. It begins audaciously as perhaps the great office satire of the pre-Internet era, and the device of Peter being hypnotized into a state of extreme not-give-a-shititude made the already-savage portrayal of the boring, life-wasting nature of the white-collar world even more pointed. In fact, it was shaping up to be one of the greatest workplace comedies ever, and then it seems like Judge more or less forgot about the hypnosis plot, and it turned into a much more subdued—and derivative—caper comedy. It still had its high points, but compared to the brilliance of the first 45 minutes or so, it was nothing we hadn’t seen before. Throw in the deus ex Milton ending, and the absurd suggestion that manual labor is less boring, frustrating, and annoying than office work, and the second half nearly squanders all the genius of the first. Mike Judge may yet have a great movie in him, but we won’t see it until he learns how to end a story.


Josh Modell
I’m almost afraid to even bring this up, since it’s seems to be such a contentious point for film fans, but I’m solidly in the camp that believes Steven Spielberg’s A.I. would have been a far superior movie if it had simply ended with the android played by Haley Joel Osment “dead” at the bottom of the ocean. Instead, it adds half an hour of sentimental futurism, with artificial beings re-creating a perfect day for the little robotic boy. It’s so jarring and Spielberg-esque, it really irritated fans of Stanley Kubrick (who had been developing the movie for years), who thought it wasn’t true to his general filmmaking outlook. In the final sentence of his three-star review, Roger Ebert says, “The movie’s conclusion is too facile and sentimental, given what has gone before. It has mastered the artificial, but not the intelligence.” I wouldn’t argue that the final act “ruins” A.I., but had it ended where I expected it to, I’d probably love it instead of simply liking it.

Keith Phipps
After I choke back a defense of the final act of A.I.—don’t you understand that his experiencing a simulacrum of happiness just makes it sadder!?!—Sorry. Moving on. I do have to admit that Spielberg often does have problems with endings. Munich is another one for the not-ruined-but-harmed file, thanks to the awkward, heavy-handed climactic sex-and-terror scene. I love Spielberg, but he has a failure of nerve when it comes to ambiguity, even when wading in the moral murk of what’s otherwise and extraordinary film.


Claire Zulkey
This definitely might have had something to do with the fact that I watched the movie over the course of two nights, but I felt a lot less enthusiastic about Up In The Air after George Clooney learns the truth about Vera Farmiga. It bothered me that she seemed so angry that Clooney didn’t read the situation right (I’m trying not to spoil here), when she was blatantly unclear about her situation, especially when she attended his sister’s wedding with him. Obviously that’s what surprises are all about, but had she been a tad softer in regards to his confusion, I might not have felt so let down. This abrupt character shift changed the tone of the movie for me, and I ended up feeling much less enamored with it than when I started it. I guess I liked the cold, hard, impersonal part of the movie more than the “Now I’ve learned my lesson and this is what life is all about” part.

Jason Heller
I had no reason to expect that Funny People would be anything other than one more sufficiently funny Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen romp. But Adam Sandler’s turn as a miserable millionaire comedian trying to recapture the fire of his youth—using the hapless, up-and-coming comic Rogen as his surrogate—actually resonates for the first 66.6 percent of the movie, and it even neatly navigates the inherent awkwardness of Sandler’s solipsistic riffing on his own persona (or at least what the public at large might perceive as such). But that final third of the film, in which Rogen stands around open-mouthed while Sandler viciously, selfishly tries to steal “the one that got away” from her current husband? It’s not only jarring and tedious, it obliterates any charm or goodwill the premise had built up to that point. Also: The people stop being funny.


Genevieve Koski
There was a fair amount of twee obnoxiousness percolating in (500) Days Of Summer before it reached the end, but I was willing to forgive/go along with it if it meant getting to experience awesome scenes like the Hall & Oates musical number and the split-screen sequence, between some genuinely touching emotional moments. And hey, I have a pretty high tolerance for twee obnoxiousness to begin with, so I was able to keep most of my eye-rolling in check and enjoy the film for what it was—a better-than-average romantic comedy. Until the final scene—the final line, which manages to strip everything before it of whatever sincerity it had, and glaze it instead with a calculated, saccharine sheen. For those who haven’t seen it and don’t mind spoilers… The film follows Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s 500-day infatuation-relationship-breakup with a girl named Summer (Zooey Deschanel), whom he finally gets over when he meets Minka Kelly. Her character’s name? Autumn. Ugh. It’s the final drop of sugar syrup that tips the scale from “engagingly quirky” to “cloyingly cute.”

Todd VanDerWerff
Like Josh, I don’t know that this final act ruins the film, but I was sorely nonplussed with the weird turn into abrupt action cutting that Gangs Of New York took in the final third. The first two-thirds of the film are among the best stuff Martin Scorsese has ever done, and one of the most sheerly enveloping films I’ve seen. The film creates an entire world, full of causes, effects, and brutal violence, and it invites viewers to get lost in it. Then the final act comes along and turns everything into a fairly standard action epic. It isn’t that this portion of the movie is bad, but it’s a reminder that you’re watching a movie, not wandering off into the past. And then it ends with some cheesy effects that transform the New York skyline of the 1800s into the New York skyline of the 21st century. Which, fine. Go ahead. But it makes the whole thing end up feeling oddly reductive, especially when the bordering-on-awful U2 song comes on. There were rumors that the Weinstein brothers cut something like an hour of material out of the film, and I wonder how much of it came out of the last third, which really needed more room to breathe. I hope in all of the weirdness surrounding Miramax that an extended version comes out someday. It’s a film that could have been great, and was instead merely good.


Christopher Mincher
I love a good mystery, but nothing kills my enjoyment of them more than when, nearing a movie’s end, characters simply monologue explanations that could otherwise never be ascertained. Perhaps my all-time example of this is Vanilla Sky. For the majority of the movie, I played the guessing game, until the science-fiction twist made it clear that attempting to make sense of the previous plot had been entirely pointless. At that point, the whole movie felt like one big ridiculous waste of time, and I couldn’t care one bit about what happened next, much less ponder whatever larger metaphysical themes Cameron Crowe was shooting for.

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