Monday, April 7, 2014

GONE WITH THE WIND: Her Own Worst Enemy

This is a blog post from Moral Premise Workshop attendee, Ed Godwin.

Her Own Worst Enemy
by Guest Blogger Ed Godwin
In the fall of 2012, I had the opportunity to hear Stan Williams give a luncheon speech at Rochester Writer's Conference in Michigan. I learned more about story structure in that hour than in all the advice columns and classes before and since. So when the opportunity arrived in April of this year for an all-day workshop, I jumped at the chance.
Listing the various key elements of a good story, he of course included the role of the antagonist, and how it was important that it be embodied in a person and not some vague concept. (Read his evaluation of CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE DAWN TREADER for a good example of this omission.)
Suddenly I was terrified that I might have to rewrite or abandon the story I'm currently working on. It didn't seem to have a clear antagonist, at least not at the beginning. So in an attempt to salvage my pride (a weakness nearly every writer has at some point), I searched my mind for an example of a successful story that had no clearly defined antagonist. And I found one--or I thought I did--in one of the most famous movies of all time: GONE WITH THE WIND.
I love stories with strong women, and Scarlett O'Hara of course is no exception. I find delicious irony in that her greatest asset, her will to persevere no matter what the cost, also blinds her to her ultimate goal of true love. But therein lies the clue to the dilemma. Who is her antagonist?
First, we have to realize that she has more than one goal: not only to (1) find true love, but to (2) save Tara and lift herself out of poverty by “beating [the Yankees] at their own game.”  The Yankees are a clear antagonist for the second goal, but this is a late subplot, starting with the defeat of Atlanta and the destruction of her way of life. Her desire to find love begins in the very first scene, and it isn't resolved until the very end.
So if finding true love is her main goal, who is her main antagonist? I first thought it was Ashley Wilkes. He's the one she's constantly pining after, yet his honor and fidelity always thwarts her devious schemes. But this goal is not a goal at all, it's an illusion. In a scene near the beginning, her father Gerald says "I want my girl to be happy. You'd not be happy with him." And like all good stories do, that sets up the main conflict right at the beginning: the pursuit of an impossible dream. I suppose even a false goal could have a “false antagonist”. But what she really desires is true love. She just doesn't realize it.
Is Rhett Butler her antagonist? In a minor way, yes. He comes and goes in various forms throughout the story, and is often the foil for her lesser schemes, such as paying the taxes on Tara. But in many ways he is as deluded as she is. He marries her, knowing her motivation is pure avarice, yet hopes she will eventually forget Ashley and love him instead. In that sense she is the clear antagonist for him, until his frustration drives him to seek comfort with Belle, the prostitute.
But Scarlett is so determined to win Ashley's love that it blinds her to the real thing, even when it's staring her in the face. It takes the tragedy of Melanie's death for her to realize she's been deluding herself all these years. If this is Scarlett's turn of events toward the truth of the moral premise, when she finally sees the truth, it is a complete departure from the recommendation that it should happen somewhere in the middle act. Any previous hint that she may be waking up to the truth is when Rhett carries her up the stairs for a night of passion, and she wakes up the next morning beaming with pleasure. But even that moment is less than thirty minutes from the end of a film nearly four hours long.
We love Scarlett. We also despise the scheming side of her (she treats criminals like slaves and her husbands like dirt), and at least partially applaud when Rhett walks away with his immortal "I don't give a damn." We love her and love to hate her at the same time because they both tie into the same moral premise in different ways, one of hope and perseverance (against poverty), the other of hope and perseverance taken to an extreme (her treatment of people and her obsessive infatuation). Scarlett O'Hara is her own worst enemy, both the hero and the villain, and therefore her own antagonist.
Margaret Mitchell only published one book during her lifetime. But what an impact that book made. All because she had the guts (or perhaps the sheer ignorance) to defy the rules and combine the antagonist and protagonist into one person. What resulted was one of the richest characters in literary history.

Ed Godwin
---
So readers what do you think? I've not studied GWTW, but one of these days I'll look at the movie and scan the book. Let's hear from you. GWTW appears to be a tragedy. Is it? Is this a valid moral premise statement for the movie and its main characters, one of which might be the Confederacy? 
Clinging to lost hope leads to poverty and lost identity; but
Advocating delusions leads to destitution and anonymity.
Stan Williams

Sunday, March 30, 2014

ARONOFSKY'S NOAH - The Moral Premise and 30 Things That Agree with the Biblical Account


BRIEF NO SPOILERS COMMENTS UP FRONT.
SPOILERS AT THE BOTTOM

Pam and I took in Darren Aronofsky's NOAH last night at one of Emagine Entertainments E3 screens. Great ride. Did not disappoint. Good story structure. Criticism from Christian circles is unfounded and based on confusion about the mythic nature of stories. The criticism from religious circles that the story is pagan, atheistic, and anti-Biblical is a scandal.  I try to show why below... while revealing how filmmakers or story makers can be faithful to the source text why making the story fully anew.

[For an explanation of movies, myths and truth, see The Truth of Myths.]

An early derivation of the moral premise for Aronofsky's NOAH is:

Justice without mercy leads to dread, death, and annihilation; but
Justice with mercy leads to hope, life, and a new creation. 

[If you're unfamiliar with the moral premise, it's a single statement that describes the physical and psychological arc of the story. If it's true to natural law and consistently portrayed in a story, we have a strong indicator of audience connection and financial success.]

This moral premise for Noah, is true, and appears to be consistently applied in all the character arcs, especially in the various subplots that surround Noah's character. The truth and consistency of this premise will resonate with audiences as true at a subliminal level and will be a major reason for the film's success.

SUB-THEMES / MORAL PREMISES

One of the sub-moral premise statements, which dovetails well with the above is:

Belief in the Creator without righteousness leads to annihilation; but
Belief in the Creator with righteousness leads to salvation.

There are clearly no atheistic characters in this movie. EVERYONE believed in the Creator. The difference is that NOT EVERYONE obeys the Creator. Those that believe and disobey are evil, those that believe and obey are righteous. Faith alone doesn't save Noah and his family. It's faith and righteousness, or to put it in more common language, faith + good works (c.f. James 2).

Another sub-premise statement might be this:

Embracing a selfish understanding of what it means to be man 
leads to evil and annihilation; but
Embracing the Creator's understanding of what it means to be man 
leads to righteousness and salvation. 

This is made explicit in the speeches and actions of Tubal-Cain in how Ham is tempted and led astray.

CAUSE and EFFECT: The Logic in Ham's Subplot

Oftentimes source material (in this case the Bible) tells us what happens but doesn't provide the backstory for why it happens. But Natural Law demands and audiences require that every story event has a cause. So, when source material doesn't tell us what that cause is, filmmakers have to imagine the cause, so audiences can follow the logic. That is one of the challenges of adaptations. (By the way, there's a good explanation of this in the Behind the Scenes documentaries for Peter Jackson's The Hobbit where Tolkien only provides a few words to describe something for which Jackson needs to create whole scenes.)

Thus, in Ham's subplot of Aronofsky's NOAH, we are given an understanding of the causes that effect Ham's exile in the Biblical story. The Bible suggests that Ham was exiled because he looked on his father's drunken nakedness. But "cause and effect" asks the question, "why did Ham disrespect his father and look on his nakedness in the first place?" The Bible doesn't explain that...so Aronofsky' and Handel (Aronofsky's co-writer) offer some suggestions to complete the story thread.

BIBLICAL ACCURACY

In claiming that the Noah movie is not Biblical accurate, critics should be careful to discern between:
  1. the original Biblical text, which Christian theologians claim is inerrant, 
  2. the hundreds of various translations which are studied and reasonable extrapolations of what the original texts said, and 
  3. the interpretations of the Biblical translations, which is now two steps removed from the original. 
Of the three items above, only No. 1 is inerrant, and unfortunately none of those texts exist today. Yes, Biblical texts are said to have been reconstructed with good accuracy. But the extrapolations are not inerrant.

Thus, Biblical proponents should also be aware that the following are not inerrant, and that these are what most people refer to when they claim what the Bible intends to say:
  • a particular Bible scholar's opinion (of what the Bible) text means to say. 
  • a particular translation's footnotes
  • a particular Bible translation,
  • an individual, pastor, or other authority's opinion.
In terms of spiritual truth, all of the above may be trustworthy, but to claim they are inerrant is false. 

Another thing that Bible critics should be careful about doing is arguing from silence. That is, an argument is fallacious if it claims something did not happen, simply because it is not mentioned. Did Noah get angry at God? Did Noah doubt his mission? Did Noah confuse his mission? Did he rail unjustly at this family? The Bible leaves open the possibility that all those questions could be answered yes, without infringing upon the Biblical record. 

And there is one Bible mention that suggests that all of the above did happen. What was that one event? It was this: Noah got so drunk he passed out, naked. Now why would Noah do such a thing? Aronofsky and Handel suggest it was because of the great stress that Noah experienced. Can such a man of faith and righteousness like Noah get naked and pass out drunk. You bet, if you believe the Bible. All that Aronofsky posits is some of the logical particulars of WHY that happened.  

OKAY, SO HERE'S A SPOILER

Let's examine one other instance from the movie that is fairly easy to explain but to some seems unBiblical. The Bible says that the wives of all three sons were on the ark? Emma Watson plays Ila, Shem's wife. But did the movie show the wives of Ham and Japheth on the ark? Many people who think they are correctly interpreting the Bible will say that the Movie did not include the wives of Ham and Japheth, and therefore the movie disrespects the Bible's infallibility. But the movie leaves open the interpretation that Shem and Ila's two daughters become the future wives of Ham and Japheth. And those two little girls were conceived before Ila gets on the ark. So, if you believe that life begins at conception, then the movie allows that the wives of Ham and Japheth were indeed on the boat....especially if you're writing about this perhaps 1,000 hears in the future as Moses is claimed to be. And thus, Aronofsky gives us a story that indeed follows the Biblical account that there were eight souls on the Ark, 4 women, and 4 men.

AND A FEW OTHER SPOILERS...
30 Things Aronofsky Gets Right About the Biblical Account


The ways in which Aronofsky's NOAH follows the Biblical Story are many. Those that claim the movie is not Biblical, or pagan in its portrayal are truth-challenged.
  1. Noah is the man that God chooses to build the ark and lead a righteous family to safety.
  2. The flood destroys all life left behind. 
  3. God supernaturally communicates with Noah, and Noah obeys, even though what he's asked to do seems ridiculous. 
  4. Everyone believes in God. Even Tubal-Cain the villain. 
  5. In a great show of consistent faith, Noah reminds his family that the Creator will provide all they need. Noah: "The Creator has supplied all our needs," even wives for Ham and Japheth, although Ham could not trust God.
  6. We see miracle after miracle by the creator and illustrates general and particular grace.  
  7. Noah obeys God, and is so desirous of obeying God, that he becomes obsessed about it to near madness. Like many of us he wants to listen to God, but can't always discern how that is happening. 
  8. Noah is tempted many times to turn from the Creator, but he remains true. He repeatedly proves his righteousness.
  9. Redemption is possible, even for the fallen. We see this in HAM and in THE WATCHERS. I particularly thought the redemption of The Watchers was true to the Biblical concept of redemption, even if the Church says it can't happen. Even though The Watchers are fallen angels, when they make a moral decision to get back on God's side and help Noah and defend God's will against evil even to the point of death, they find redemption where they didn't expect it. Such sequences remind us of how the most sinful man can find salvation by turning back and obeying a God who forgives.
  10. As already mentioned, there are eight souls (4 men and 4 women) who survive the flood. Looking back from the time of Moses to Noah, it's easy to say (per the movie) that the three girls are the wives of Shem, Ham, and Japheth.
  11. The Creator created EVERYTHING from NOTHING. We can debate how, but the movie makes it clear that GOD did it. It wasn't chance.
  12. The Bible doesn't say how the ark was built, but it befuddles the mind how 4 men and 4 women could have done it alone, even given 100 years. You can't argue from silence to determine how such a huge craft was made ready without supernatural help. God provides.And it's just like God to provide using those that seem alien to goodness. Throughout the Bible God transforms evil to good.
  13. Another fallacious argument from silence is that Noah never got angry or mad at God or anyone else. Considering the task that faced him, at the time it faced him, and the miracles that were required to make it happen...any normal, human man is going to be tested to the limits of patience, endurance, and faith. Aronofsky shows us this verisimilitude. And Noah comes down on the right side of the issue.
  14. The flood springs not only from the skies but from the ground.
  15. The Creator is Just but he is also Merciful. Mankind has always struggled with the balance of these attributes of God's character. Noah struggles. With the help of his wife's spiritual insight they both succeed. When Noah shows mercy it's because of God's mercy to him.
  16. A bird brings back a twig to the ark signifying that the flood is receding. 
  17. Noah gets drunk, Ham looks on his nakedness with disrespect, Shem and Japheth cover their father's nakedness.
  18. Ham is exiled. 
  19. In the end Noah and his family give thanks to God for their salvation, and Noah recites the covenant from God.
  20. There is a glorious rainbow.
  21. (Here's one my wife recognized.) Adoption and being grafted into the spiritual family of God is a ubiquitous Biblical theme we see in the lives of personages like Ruth and Rahab. Then in Christian New Testament Scriptures we read how believers are grafted into relationship with the family of God as part of salvation. This is perfectly illustrated in the movie's portrayal of Ila who is an orphan Noah's family adopts. With Shem, she gives birth to two little girls and at the end she is the one to tell Noah that you didn't let the Creator down. He was giving you the chance to join with him in showing mercy and you did.
  22. Noah asks for God to speak to him to tell him what to do. Noah's expecting another vision or a voice from heaven. But, as is true throughout the Bible and our persona lives, God speaks loudly and clearly in ways that surprise us. In the movie's case, the sign from God is the twins born to Ila about which Noah says,  "All I see is love"... and bends down and kisses them. It is a perfect representation of redemption from God to man, and then from man to those he's charged with protecting. 
  23. When Tubal-Cain mocks Noah for standing alone against his army, Noah says, "I'm not alone." This is Biblical -- that the people of God, even though persecuted and out numbered, are not alone. The first thought that comes to our mind is that Noah has God. But the filmmaker's challenge is to make visible what is normally invisible. Aronofsky choice surprises, but it's an apt metaphor for how God works in strange and unexpected ways. 
  24. The movie shows us that "the Creator" is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent.
  25. The movie shows us that "the Creator" created all the land, the animals.
  26. The movie shows us that separately form the animals (if you're worried about evolution of animals to humans) that God created human beings separately.
  27. The movie shows us that "the Creator" created Adam and Eve.
  28. The movie shows us (repeatedly) that Adam and Eve disobeyed God and that the fruit of a tree was involved.
  29. The movie shows us that Cain murdered Able.
  30. The movie shows us Tubal-Cain (a Biblical figure) was a leader and builder of cities and metal worker worker. 
Adding as I get comments back:

Reader wrote
I’ve only heard on the news unanimously from "experts" plus Fr. Morrison on Fox news and others, the fact that it seems to put the climax of humans ruining the earth rather than their sin and pushing God aside which is the reason for the flood. Of course there’s more as well.
My partial response: The line in the film about humans ruining the earth is there. But it is minor and it can be understood in several ways:
  • Humans disrespected creation…. which is true.
  • Humans disrespected God’s moral rule on earth…. which is true.
  • Humans were responsible for the flood through their disobedience… which is true.

Thus, the environmental destruction we see in the film, and Noah's line about man doing it, becomes a valid visual metaphor for man's moral destruction, which is generally invisible. While I'm not an environmentalist, per se, the environmental destruction we see in the movie fits the Biblical precept given to man to care for the Earth and all that's in it (Gen 2:15).  To the extent we screw that up, we’re responsible. We can debate how much man has screwed it up, but sin does that… to everything God has created. So, I’m confused as to why Christians sometimes make it sound like humans have a right to mess up what God told us to care for. Fr. Morrison is clearly wrong. The film is much more about faith and obedience to God and the consequences of obeying God or not. And the comments about the environment and such, while perhaps a little P.C. for modern times, are not in contradiction to the movie's overall moral premise nor do they conflict with the Biblical account and man's charge over the Earth. 

EXTRA BIBLICAL THINGS

There are a number of things in the movie that you won't find in the Bible. But then there are a lot of things the Bible doesn't tell us. Bible stories do not exist to tell us physical facts, but rather to convey spiritual reality. You can change up the facts about any Bible story and still claim that the Bible is infallible in its purpose and message. But then, movies, like all stories require a logically tight cause-effect pattern for audiences to follow along. If you have read The Moral Premise or this blog much, you'll understand why stories must follow a form or certain rules to connect with audiences. I would not say so much that Aronofsky takes license with the Biblical account, as much as he adds to the account so it makes logical sense. He is careful to avoid "writer's convenience" -- that lazy writer's technique of introducing an illogical plot twist for the sake of getting to the desired ending.

Dr. JANET SMITH, a Catholic theologian, has posted a remarkable analysis.
http://www.catholicvote.org/noah-another-abraham-destroy-life-to-obey-god/

The Truth of Myths

[This post was written in conjunction with my post on NOAH. ]

The best movies are myths.
The best movies tell the truth.

Many people confuse "myth" with something that is not true.

But in fact, a proper myth tells the truth within the capsule of something that is not necessarily true.

Truth, in all its forms, requires critical thinking. That means what is correct about a thing is probably not the first thing that comes to mind.

K.I.S.S.  vs COMPLEX EPISTEMOLOGY

Critical thinking finds the KISS method of knowing, vulgar. KISS stands for Keep It Simple Stupid. The KISS method of epistemology (the study of how we know something is true) assumes that there is often only one cause to an effect (when there are probably many causes that work in concert). KISS may also conclude that the best explanation for something is the one that is easiest to understand (when in fact the mechanics of life, death, emotion and disorder are very complex.) The KISS and INCORRECT definition of a mythic story is that the myth or story is simply false.

The CORRECT definition is this:
A MYTH is the outer or physical spine of a story that is always an incomplete revelation of the truth (or totally fictitious), but nonetheless caries within its moral spine an internal and universal truth.  The truth of a myth is the moral premise of the story -- i.e. what the story is really about.
In the realm of successful filmmaking the outer story is almost always, partly or completely fiction. The reasons are several:
  1. there is limited time to tell the whole story
  2. there is limited audience attention for the boring parts
  3. there is limited money to produce the whole story
  4. there is limited retention by the audience to comprehend all the causes that effect the story's outcome. 
CAUSE & EFFECT

Related to this is the natural law of cause and effect.  Natural Law requires that every effect is preceded by a cause. In storytelling this is a powerful and necessary concept. The best stories set up the cause before revealing the effect, we call this "foreshadowing." When a story event occurs, the audience will only accept it if the writer has already revealed the cause. When the writer does not reveal the cause and something just happens out of the blue, the audience is taken out of the story as they mentally try to figure out WHY that particular thing could have happened. Writing critics call this "writer's convenience." Readers and movie goers don't like it. Logic is too much a part of our lives; there must be a reason for everything.

Unfortunately, when you stop to think about this, the cause and effect pattern reaches back indefinitely. It is also true that some events, if not all events, have multiple causes. A car accident in an intersection isn't simply the result of one driver running a red light. That may appear to be the KISS cause, but other causes include:
  • The driver (of the car being hit) not approaching the intersection with more caution
  • The signal light being red/green, and not green/red, or yellow.
  • The "emergency" or "motivation" that caused the driver to run the red light.
  • The distraction that caused the hit driver to not be more carful.
  • The invention of the signal light.
  • The invention of the automobile
  •  etc.
ADAPTATIONS

For these reasons a story about real events, portrayed in a motion picture, is "adapted." Even a very long book of the real event is going to be adapted, if for no other reason than the book has to be written and read in linear time, when in fact the real events happened simultaneously. So, imagine then how a movie is an adaptation of a book that is an adaptation of real events. 

Knowing this should remove all need to get bent out of shape about why a movie doesn't get the facts right. My guess is any critic of such a movie cannot get all the facts right even if given all the time he or she needs to tell the truth. My wife and I can't remember what we just said to each other five minutes ago. So, why should we demand the impossible of authors and producers when we're going to do no better. Even sacred religious books like the Bible, do not tell you everything that happened, or what all the causes of the events were, or how physically it happened, or exactly in what order it happened.

Logic of Myths & Stories from a Moral Premise Workshop Slide
J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had a number of discussions (documented in essays) about this, in reference to stories in the Bibles. Tolkien finally convinced Lewis that in fact the Bible contained myths. That does not mean Tolkien and Lewis believed the Bible stories were false.  It means that the Bible could not be fully complete and that the purpose of the Bible stories (whether they are literally true or symbolic) was to convey the deeper, moral truths that are universal to all time and places. Thus, as Lewis and Tolkien articulated it, the story of Jesus is a true myth. This is also the reason that some theologians refer to the stories of creation, the flood, and Jonah as myths. They may be trying to convince us that such stories are NOT true. But the best way of calling them myths is that they can't tell us all the truth of the events, but they DO convey the moral and spiritual truth that is ultimately important. 

MOVIES: NECESSARILY MYTHS

So, a motion picture is necessarily a myth, which is the external, outward, physical, or visible spine of a story. And that story (or myth) carries within an internal, inward, psychological or invisible spine which is the universal, eternal, moral premise.

While the outward and visible on-the-screen story (the myth) must be at least partially fictionalized, the inner truth encapsulated in the myth is absolutely and universally true -- at least in the narratives that are popular with general audiences.

It is for that reason, that some movies which reference real events almost always begin with the words, "Inspired by...", "Based on...." or my favorite from AMERICAN HUSTLE, "Some of this actually happened."

Debate whether a movie about historical events is true or false is, therefore, a waste of time and a fallacious exercise. By necessity a linear told story will always be partly fictionalized. BUT the story still may be about something that is universally true.

DOCUMENTARIES

People sometimes suggest that if truth of the real events are important a documentary should be consulted, or a historian's book. But the reality is that documentaries and books all have human authors who have agendas, opinions, and points of view. They may not pretend to be myths, but at some point they too will be fiction. (Again, because, all writing requires interpretation of real, simultaneous events with myriad of causes.)

THE MORAL PREMISE

This then, is the purpose of The Moral Premise statement -- to help us understand the central universal truth of the story  -- around which are hopefully supportive mythic elements.


Thursday, February 13, 2014

The Importance of Hell in Story Structure

In a email blast from Final Draft (the screenwriting program people) was a link to some video clips of Robert McKee (STORY) answering questions from his fans. At the bottom of the page was an UNLISTED YouTube clip where McKee is being interviewed by HELLBOUND producer Kevin Miller about the importance of "hell" in storytelling.

McKee claims to be an atheist, but that may be a marketing ploy. Here's his answer, which I think is profound in terms of characters, the decisions they make, and the risk of real consequences in the real world in which they live:

I teach writing. I teach story. The root of any story is the choices that the character’s make under the pressure of life to take one action versus another, as they pursue what they want. So if I believe in God again I’d have to believe in hell. You see, if damnation isn’t eternal that leads to junkie logic. (Kevin: How so?) I’ll take care of it tomorrow. Where hell eliminates tomorrow. So you can’t take care of it tomorrow. You have to take care of it today or you die with a mortal sin on your soul and you go to hell for e-v-e-r.    
The notion that there really isn’t hell is simply a wussy effort by certain people to make God a nice guy–because they can’t deal with the dichotomy that god is both a protector and lover, and a punisher. They want to eliminate the punisher. If that’s the case then choice doesn’t matter, everything is forgiven, everybody goes to heaven, and that’s no way to run a society. And so, as an atheist, I think that there are really world consequences of doing good or evil. But a lot of people want to postpone that to the afterlife, but there have to be real consequences. If there’s not, then choice doesn’t have any meaning. And if choice doesn’t have any meaning, life doesn’t have any meaning. And by eliminating hell, these people are sucking the meaning out of life.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Movies That Failed

I have been asked (several times) to give examples of narrative motion pictures that failed at the box office because they lacked a true and consistent moral premise. And whenever I do, I'm astonished that some movies get made with such obvious structural flaws. 

As I watched some of these films I became distressed. The problems are easily avoidable. (I can help folks...make you lots of money... but you gotta listen and follow the rules.)

While a motion picture's box office success can never be attributed to one thing but to a host of accomplishments -- the most bankable attachments, the best acted, best directed, best art-directed, and the best-marketed efforts cannot overcome a false or inconsistent moral premise, or a true moral premise that is not consistently imbued into the character's arcs.  At the same time, many films fail for reasons that have nothing to do with the moral premise but rather with bad craft, incomprehensible plots, and wrong or no marketing. But these films had problems at the script level and should never have been greenlighted. Never! All avoidable! And there's a $20 book that will tell them how. 

OVERALL CONCLUSION: When motion picture stories are built around false or inconsistent moral premises they do not connect with audiences and fail at the box office.

Discussed, in the order of their release year....

ISHTAR (1987), CITY SLICERS 2 (1994),  CUTTHROAT ISLAND (1995), THE PLEDGE (2001), HURT LOCKER (2008), SEVEN POUNDS (2008), NARNIA: VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER (2010), MARS NEEDS MOMS (2011), THE FIFTH ESTAGE (2013), BURT WONDERSTONE (2013).



ISHTAR (1987) B $51M. US $14M. WW N/A. Dir. Elaine May.

Note to Elaine May: I watched the entire movie. My wife wanted to turn it off after 10 minutes. We laughed only during the Keystone cops sequence with the guys in the Hawaiian shirts. Other than that, it was pure professional curiosity (How could anyone, other than a sadist, make this movie?) and discipline that got me through.

For the rest of you, "Ishtar is about two terrible lounge singers, Lyle and Chuck (Beatty and Hoffman), get booked to play a gig in a Moroccan hotel but somehow become pawns in an international power play between the CIA, the Emir of Ishtar, and the rebels trying to overthrow the Emir's regime." (IMBD)
The simplest way to talk about why Ishtar bombed, aside from all the political studio rumors and creative disagreements supposedly between Beatty and May on set, is to describe the obvious structural flaws, of which there are two that are glaring.
 1. The story embraces a few characteristics of the co-protagonists while ignoring others. Successful protagonists are suppose to be imperfect, but at their core are redeemable qualities that attract the audience's compassion. Although Bob Parr (The Incredibles) is "teamwork" challenged, he's a very good Super Hero and Dad. So, we root for him to overcome his fault. We like him because he's humble at heart (his essence), and he really is good at what he does. But Lyle and Chuck are not just bad singers, they're bad songwriters. They are bad romantic partners to their ladies. They're bad dressers. They're bad thinkers, they're stupid beyond understanding. And while they are not evil, the extent of their naivety has no logic or reason. Monty Python was funny because the characters were all savant in one way, but blind in another. The humor rose out of the audience trying to figure out the logic of the setup and discover the gap between savant and stupid. Every Python skit was funny because it was a brilliant mystery that followed very precise rules of reasoning. But Lyle and Chuck's characters had no reasoning, no logic, nothing for the audience to stand firmly on a "get it." There was nothing to "get" because none of it made sense.  
Good protagonists, although they have an imperfection (a deep and serious one) nonetheless get us to like them because they are people we would like to hang out with and get to know. They skilled, funny, good looking, clever, smart, vulnerable...something that makes our heart want to help them. We identify with them as perhaps being like us... and so, we want to help ... ourselves. But Lyle and Chuck are none of these things. In Dumb and Dumber (Carrey and Daniels) we have clever and numerous sight gags, prat falls, and stunts that continuously surprise us. The dialogue isn't that funny, but many of the jokes are genius at setting up the audience about what to expect and then having the impossible but logical occur. There's a logic that says the audience, "What you see is the opposite of what you'd expect, but it's reasonable." But there is absolutely none of that cleverness in Ishtar after the first 3 minutes of watching and listening to Lyle and Chuck try to write a song. It's a 3 minute gag that's not funny after 4 minutes, let alone funny after 100 minutes. We didn't like them, we didn't want to spend more time with them, there was no skill, no cleverness, no like-ability. We were like their women friends and agent who couldn't wait to leave the bar. 
2. The second problem is that the plot was one-big-writer's convenience. One scene did not logically connect to the next, just like their terrible lyrics had no logic behind their "invention."  There was no foreshadowing. CIA agents just showed up in the desert with all sorts of technology. The left-wing girl-friend just showed up in the Ishtar airport. The map just showed up. The gun runners just showed up. Plots work because there is a logical cause & effect connection between scenes, characters, props, settings. If A then B, if B then C, if C then D, etc. For instance, after their first audition with a disbelieving agent, there IS logic and humor in the agent's incredulity. But there's no logic to why the agent would book them even in Morocco or ever see them again. 


CITY SLICKERS II: THE LEGEND OF CURLY'S GOLD (1994)
Budget $40M. US $44M. WW N/A. Dir.  Paul Weiland.

In CITY SLICERS II, shortly after their first western adventure, Mitch Robbins and his friends discover a treasure map that belonged to their late trail guide Curly and set out to discover its secrets.

In comparison, the trios first adventure, CITY SLICKERS I, is the story of Manhattan radio advertising salesman, Mitch Robbins (Billy Crystal), who's in the midst of a mid-life crisis and how he re-discovers his smile. Mitch's wife Barbara (Patricia Wettig) sends Mitch off with his two buddies Phil (Daniel Stern) and Ed (Bruno Kirby) to herd cattle for a week out West. There Mitch rediscovers that his call in life is not chasing women (like his two buddies insist) but being a father and a husband. The movie's moral premise can be sated as:

Fidelity to family leads to happiness;
but
infidelity leads to sadness.

That is a moral premise statement upon which the entire movie is consistently built; and it is a true portrayal of natural law. CITY SLICERS was a huge success grossing $124MM in the US, in 1991.

CITY SLICKERs II comes along with the same cast and the same setting, and same writers, except this time around they're looking for lost gold that was stolen from a stagecoach a hundred years ago. They rationalize that the gold belongs to whoever finds it, and Mitch believes it's okay to lie to his wife about being at a radio convention in Las Vegas. It's clear, however, that the gold belongs to others. And because in the end they find the gold everyone lives happily ever after. Now, the moral premise can be stated as:

Not pursuing illicit wealth leads to sadness;
but
 obtaining illicit wealth leads to happiness.

Clearly that is an invalid moral premise which falsely portrays natural law, and CITY SLICKERS II only grossed $30MM.

Conclusion: False moral premise.


CUTTHROAT ISLAND (1995)
Budget $95M. US $11M.  WW $18M.  Dir.  Renny Harlin starring Geena Davis
A female pirate and her companion race against their rivals to find a hidden island that contains a fabulous treasure.
I've always appreciated Geena Davis' guts for being feminine and at once taking on the stunts that usually only guys do. And it seems that she does a lot of her own stunts. If you want to see a gutsy woman with the ability to be sexy and get in a bloody fist-fight at once, with harrowing stunt every 7 minutes, this is your movie. It will not disappoint on that level. It's the swashbuckler's swashbuckler movie. The photography by Peter Levy is spectacular (shot in Malta and Thailand), and the orchestration by John Debney and the London Symphony is right up there with John Williams's best. 
Many are still wondering how such an over-the-top enterprise have bombed so badly at the box office.  There is a moral premise angle on this movie, but there are some other reasons. Recall that while the LACK of a true and consistent moral premise can kill a good film, the PRESENCE of a true and consistent moral premise will not guarantee it's box office success. In this case I think it is all of the above.
Why did this film bomb? 
1. Some have suggested there marketing budget and the release schedule were against it.  Perhaps, but there are a slew of worldwide distributors attached and MGM handled the domestic theatrical release. However, if everything else was up to par, the film would have had legs. 
2. Direction, Acting, and physical training were subpar. Renny Harlin's direction was spotty. There are lines that are delivered as if it was a table read, without conviction and flat. Harlin's direction prowess may have been in working with his practical effects team, which was astonishing, even if some effects were composited. It was also evident that Miss Davis's fitness for some of the physical requirements (leaping up onto the ship's rail) were tough for her. In short he ran and leaped awkwardly. But I don't think this or some of the lame lines  killed the movie, although they didn't help.
3. This movie was not about anything important or true. That is, the movie really has no moral premise. It was fun and games for the actors, but no one cared for a moment whether or not the story was about anything noble or meaningful. The stash of gold the good pirates and the bad pirates are after  is clearly the booty from other pirating adventures. And the disposition of the gold had no noble end. The ending reminded me of the failed CITY SLICKERS: SEARCH FOR CURLY'S GOLD. The gold belonged to someone else; and in the end Captain Moran (Davis) and her crew decide to go right on pirating...that is, plundering other ships to add to their loot. If there is a moral premise to this film it's:
Greed leads to dangers; but
More greed leads to freedom to be more greedy.

Yes, I'm being factious. But I'm not sure the movie was about much else. 

It is possible that this film is a text book example that to audiences movies are suppose to mean something, and when they don't mean anything, or when they try to mean something that isn't universally true, they bomb.

THE PLEDGE (2001)
Budget $45M. US $20M. WW N/A. Dir.  Sean Penn.

A retiring police chief, Jerry Black (Jack Nicholson) pledges to catch the killer of a young child. The film also costars (in mostly cameo roles) Helen Mirren, Tom Noonan, Benicio Del Toro, Michael O'Keefe, Vanessa Redgrave, Mickey Rourke, Sam Shepard, and Patricia Clarkson. HOW COULD YOU GO WRONG?

But here is what's wrong with the movie. Although the killer is killed and no doubt meets his judgment, he dies in a freak vehicle accident just minutes before falling into a trap set by Jerry, Jerry doesn't know the killer dies. So, in a continuing and impossible effort to find the man, who is dead, Jerry drinks himself insane. Thus, the moral premise could be constructed this way:



Child abuse and murder lead to a quick end in the fires of hell; but
Keeping your word to find justice leads to drunken insanity. 

You're right, the virtues and vices are not opposites, and neither is the consequence. That's because this story was made on an idea that is without a good foundation in reality.

If we attempt to construct a moral premise that COULD have been used for this story it may be:

Child abuse and murder lead to a quick end in the fires of hell; but
Protecting children from an abuser and murdered leads to justice. 

Had Jerry and the killer been pitted against each other in a cat and mouse game, and had Jerry some how, even inadvertently, been responsible for the killer's just death or imprisoned, this latter moral premise could have saved the movie.

Conclusion: False moral premise, inconsistency with how a good moral premise should apply to the film's characters and plot.

A deeper explanation can be found here: http://moralpremise.blogspot.com/2010/08/all-star-cast-false-moral-premise-sink.html

HURT LOCKER (Oct, 2008)
Budget $15M. US $16M. WW $19M. OSCARS: 6 of 9 Noms. Dir.  Kathryn Bigelow

During the Iraq War, a Sergeant recently assigned to an army bomb squad is put at odds with his squad mates due to his maverick way of handling his work. This is a movie that won six of its nine 2009 Academy Award nominations, including Best Original Screenplay, Best Direction, and Best Picture. But it did not resonate with general audiences, doing only $12.6 MM at the box office ($11 MM budget). Why would such a powerful movie in many respects fail to garner a large audience?

The plot of the movie and the character arcs have a true moral premise significantly portrayed by the characters; it is:  

Demanding arrogance leads to animosity and hatred; but
Competent teamwork leads to respect and honor.

But to connect that true moral premise must connect with audiences consistently through the various story elements and characters. Yet, the movie begins with this on-screen quote:

The Rush of a Battle is often a potent and lethal addiction, for war is a drug.

And the movie ends with our main character not changing but returning to duty in Iraq rather than being home with his family—-he's addicted to war and cannot function at home. But that is not what the moral premise of the story reveals. Thus, there's a disconnect.

There is also an issue with the filmmaker's identification of a protagonist, whom they think is SGT. Williams James (JEREMY RENNER). But protagonists change and James doesn't. He's the same at the beginning as he is at the end. Instead he's the antagonist, who often does not change but forces the protagonist to change, which in this case is Sgt. J.T. Sanborn (ANTHONY MACKIE). It is Sanborn that arcs from animosity and hatred to respect and honor. And that confuses the audience.

Conclusion: True moral premise but inconsistent application to characters and plot, confusing the audience.

A longer discussion of HURT LOCKER can be found here: http://moralpremise.blogspot.com/search/label/Hurt%20Locker

SEVEN POUNDS (Dec, 2008)
B $55M. US $70M.  WW: $165M. Dir. Gabriele Muccino.

A man, Tim Thomas (Will Smith), with a fateful secret embarks on an extraordinary journey of redemption by forever changing the lives of seven strangers. That's how the producers want you to understand this movie. The secret is that Tim caused an automotive accident that killed seven people including his wife who was the passenger in his car. Somehow Tim, as the only survivor, avoids going to prison for manslaughter--a story beat the movie never deals with.

Tim goal is to find seven people who are in life-threatening situations due to illnesses that cannot be cured, and give them something of himself so they can live. He donates bone marrow, a lung, a kidney, a liver, and his beach house to give new life to others. Then he arranges to donate his final gifts--his corneas and his heart, which ironically goes to the young woman with a fatal heart condition that he has fallen in love with. To consummate his final donations he commits suicide in such a way that his organs can be quickly harvested and transplanted.

The moral premise could be stated like this:

Hating self leads to suicide; but
Loving others (also) leads to suicide.

The movie would have worked better as a tragedy, but the producers try to make out Tim's ultimate sacrifice (of suicide) as redemptive, and self-hatred can never be redemptive.

Conclusion: False moral premise, it is contrary to how 99% of humanity is wired, and the movie (for a Will Smith vehicle) fails at the box office.

NARNIA: VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER (2010)
B $115M. US $104M.  WW $416M. Dir.  Michael Apted.

Based on C.S. Lewis popular youth novels, Lucy and Edmund Pevensie return to Narnia with their cousin Eustace where they meet up with Prince Caspian for a trip across the sea aboard the royal ship The Dawn Treader. Along the way they encounter dragons, dwarves, merfolk, and a band of lost warriors before reaching the edge of the world.

So, what is the moral premise for this Christian allegory?  Well....I have no idea, at least not a single moral premise that focuses the actions of the many protagonists or a single antagonist, which can't be identified. In terms of a conflict of values which is the basis of a moral premise, there are many: Greedy vs. Generosity (Eustace); Pride vs. Humility (Susan); and then hints of issues with loyalty and being valiant. King Caspian wans to find the seven swords but there doesn't seem to be any consequence or stake if the swords are not found, and there's no urgency in the task. Thus, nothing is focused. All of the children seem to have different goals, but not coalesced under a single value. And if there's a single antagonist that obstructs the various goals, it is not identified not does it make clear what it wants. Instead there is a spell, black smoke, a dragon

CONCLUSION: While we have a high moral tale that hits a lot of good notes, there is nothing singular around which to unify the story, and there's no clear protagonist or antagonist with an agenda. This leaves the movie with a lackluster box office performance and obstructs it's true potential.

For a deeper explanation see: http://moralpremise.blogspot.com/2010/12/nardia-dawn-treader-without-clear-hero.html

MARS NEEDS MOMS (2011)
B $175M. US $21M.  WW $39M. Dir.  Simon Wells.

A young boy named Milo gains a deeper appreciation for his mom after Martians come to Earth to take her away. On Mars the boy finds that only females run the show and the men are all castaways. There are no families, just robots that require the death of a real Earth mother, know anything about discipline and following rules. 

The box office disaster of this movie was made all the more egregious by the decision to use 3D Motion Capture, which elevated the short 80 min family film into the stratosphere of a budget. But the story did not have a large following, although it was based on a book by the same name. 

Here are some of the reasons why this movie bombed. I'll save the moral premise, story structure for the last bullet point. 
  1. What 10-12 year old boy wants to go see a movie about mom? He'd be the laughing stock of his friends.
  2. The slow economy in 2011 prevented many families from taking their whole family to new released movie unless it's something very big. MNM was hardly known.
  3. A mother's life being threatened may be too scary for little kids. MNM is PG.
  4. The frequent homage to the 60s and the hippies would be lost on the target audience of kids, and very benign to the parents of those kids, who would not have remembered the time either. It's the grandparents that lived through the 60s.
STORY STRUCTURE PROBLEMS
A story's moral premise and character arcs are tied closely together. We see the vice and virtue of the moral premise, and the physical consequences through the decisions that the character's make and the natural law consequences. The character that audiences gravitate toward and identify with, is the protagonist. As the protagonist makes the major moral decisions that turns the story one way and then another, audiences will follow the natural law consequences and see what happens. When structured right, the audience subliminally understands what the story is really about.   Assuming the consequences on a physical level agree with the common understanding of natural law, audiences will embrace the movie and the characters,... especially the main character. 
As I said, audiences look first to the protagonist for moral decisions and consequences. Audiences naturally gravitate and try to identify with the protagonist and root for him or her to make the decisions that will send us on a great adventure and learning. Those decisions and arcs describe in an existential way what the story is really about.   
So, how do you identify the protagonist? There are several ways that the audience uses to naturally identify the protagonist. Usually ALL these things need to be true for the protagonist, or mostly so, if the movie is to be a success. The protagonist is:
  1. The character who is on the screen the most.
  2. The character that demonstrates a unrelenting passion for the main goal.
  3. The character who's name or essence is found in the movie title.
  4. The character who makes the moral decisions that changes the course of the story at turning pints like the Act 1/2 Break. Decisions cannot be made by others or happenstance.
  5. The character that changes the most internally thus empowering the outward journey toward success. 
But here is what happens in Mars Needs Moms:
  1. Milo is on screen the most (fulfilled)
  2. Milo demonstrates an unrelenting passion for the main goal (fulfilled)
  3. Mom's name is in the title. But she is unconscious and off screen 95% of the movie, and she makes no decisions that change the direction of the movie. From the title we have no idea the story is about a young boy. 
  4. Milo does not make any decisions at any turning point that changes the direction of the movie. He does not even decide to go to Mars. His trip is happenstance. Gribbles and Ki, who are established as secondary characters, make all the turning point decisions (along with the antagonist, The Supervisor). Milo simply listens and reacts; he is not active. He follows directions. For example, at the perfectly placed Act 1/2 break Milo does enter a special world of where the Martian's live; and his goal is clear and passionate: He wants to rescue his mother. But this threshold crossing is NOT Milo's decision. It is Gribble's, who tricks Milo to take the lift to the Martian's living quarters (underground)and make the journey to rescue his mom. But Gribble's motivations are not in step with Milo, and Milo is a pawn. 
  5. Milo does not change after the 8 minute mark, which is his Moment of Grace (MOG). The MOG should be at the movie's mid-point (39.5 min). And at that place there is a moment where Milo realizes that his mother loves him. It's staged and cut like a Moment of Grace complete with music cue. Up to that moment you might consider that Milo is motivated out of selfish survival needs, not because he loves his mother. The problem is that this moment does not change Milo's decision making process or behavior other than to break away at a run -- and running vs. non-running is not Milo's inner problem. Milo's inner problem, "wishing he didn't have a mom" was solved 8 minutes into the movie, even before the Inciting Incident. This has the effect of a Moment of Grace and his behavior changes. But it is not the pivot pint upon which the plot is based, and it should be. Thus, Milo internal arc is flat. He does not change from 8 minutes to 81 minutes. 
  6. One last thing: Usually the antagonistic character, in this case The Supervisor on Mars, is the agent that instigates the Inciting incident, which confronts the protagonist out of the protagonist's vice or weakness of the moral premise. But while the Inciting Incident is totally initiated by The Supervisor, it has NOTHING to do with Milo's rebellious attitude. Good inciting incidents should be a call to the protagonist to change, which is first rejects, goes on a journey, almost dies, and finally brings by the elixir of truth.
Some of the results of the above problems become evident when the other characters take time to hit beats in their story line that do agree with the moral premise. Ki for instance is learning about the "love thing" and the true concept of parenting. She doesn't hate parents to begin with as The Supervisor does, but he embraces the new concept of two parents, and ends up with Gribbles who seem to be on their way back to Mars to have a family. Gribbles also arcs from disrespecting family to embracing it. At the beginning he would rather play games and watch movies like an adolescent. And he shirks his responsibility to do the right thing. At 67% in to the movie he changes, when he decides to help Milo rescue his mother and not keep rejecting the journey that will threaten Gibble's life.  
Indeed, I think Gribbles should have been made the protagonist. He has a clear arc, he has a lot of screen time, and he's interesting. But he's not introduced until 25% into the movie, far too late for the protagonist to be introduced. 
The Martians also have a story arc that follows the moral premise. 
THE MORAL PREMISE 
I think the oral premise for this story is true, but it is not consistently applied, especially in the protagonist's arc.
Disrespecting (and hating) your parents, leads to captivity and trauma; but
Respecting (and loving) your parents, leads to freedom and peace.

Essentially MARS NEEDS MOMS suffers from a lack of a roller coaster arc for the protagonist, which would have allowed the audience to identify and root for the achievement of his goal. The movie would have done better had the title been GRIBBLES and the whole story begin with him on Mars trying to find meaning to his captive life.

THE FIFTH ESTATE (2013)
Budget $28M. US $3.3M.  WW N/A. Dir. Bill Condon.

A longer analysis of THE FIFTH ESTATE can be found HERE. What follows is a summary.

A dramatic thriller based on real events that reveals the quest by super-hacker Julian Assange, to "expose the deceptions and corruptions of power that turned an Internet upstart into the 21st century's most fiercely debated organization" (producer's quote). The movie is based primarily on a book about the events by Daniel Berg, Julian Assange's compatriot who turned on Assange at the end.

There are two obvious reasons why this movie was a box office floop, in spite of the stellar production values backed by two studio powers (Dreamworks and Touchstone's Disney).  A third reason is given in the longer analysis.

1. FALSE MORAL PREMISE

This is the moral premise that the film espouses:

Keeping any secrets leads to dystopian corruption and tyranny; but
Revealing all secrets leads to utopian justice and freedom.

Although the movie portrays Assange as a manipulative megalomanic, ["a psychopathological disorder characterized by delusional fantasies or power, relevance,  or omnipotence  characterized by an inflated sense of self-esteem and overestimation of power.(1)], the movie also elevates Assange as a noble and tragic savior that we should all emulate. 

This is made clear in a final reflective dialogue scene between Daniel Berg and Guardian reporter Nick Davies, that attempts to explain why Assange, although a manipulative liar, is a hero because his end purpose was justice (under his own terms). (See longer analysis for the dialogue). 

This ending THE FIFTH ESTATE dialogue suggests the possibility of a good (although manipulative), utopia, which conveniently avoids the presence of manipulative, dystopian evil. It also excuses Assange's tyranny over those that work for him, as if such manipulation is good if one is sincere and committed. (I understand that love covers a multitude of sins, but I've never heard that sincerity does the same thing.)  Thus, Assange comes off like a I.T. Hitler... who believes that sincerity and commitment are virtues that excuse all manner of theft and lies. Why? Because the the people Assange and others were stealing from have no right to possess what they have, and Assange's lies will uncover bigger lies. Yet, the general public is aware (at least subliminally) that the ends never justify the means, and that secrets, when revealed in the raw, are easily misinterpreted and can be used for evil purposes. They are also aware that when theft is justified by each individual for their own desires, the consequence is utter chaos and anarchy, not peace and goodness. Assange's logic is no different than that of an evil tyrant who Assange is trying to take down

The movie also makes clear that anyone that has a lot of something (secret information or secret money) is corrupt and evil -- an false generalization. Possessions are relative. A poor person in the Chicago slums would be considered rich by standards in some other parts of the world. And audiences recognize this truth, even if they are jealous of their neighbor's stuff. 

Each  member of the audience knows they have secrets that if revealed would destroy them and their loved ones. This is not so much because of wrong actions but because the debates that occur in their heads (or in parliament) if heard in the raw, would be misconstrued, and manipulated for wrong-headed or misplaced purposes. Privately in our heads, in our homes with family members, and honest debate should allow us to consider all alternatives before acting. The cables released between government officials, while some were damaging and uncomfortable, nonetheless also reflect this debate in search of truth. The debate (even in its extreme propositions) should not be constructed as wrong, but as good. It's the outcome of the debate, the actions that should be judged.  While all actions are not good, all secrets are not evil. 

But the film portrays the opposing moral premise which rings false, and thus the audience turns away. 


2. PROTAGONIST CONFUSION. Although the filmmaker's protagonist (Assange) is passionate, active, and has a physical goal (good things for a protagonist to have), the goal is not universally accepted as a noble one. And although he is imperfect (something all protagonist should be at the beginning of even a redemptive film), he doubles down and embraces his imperfections even more, thus leaving us with a tragedy.  Tragedies never do good at the box office because people want redemption...for their own lives...as exampled in the protagonist.

Berg's character, however, does change (an aspect of a successful protagonist), and we are drawn to sympathize with Berg, and root for him to put limits on Assange. But Berg is not a proactive or even passionate character searching for a goal we can root for.  He is totally reactive to Assange and to Davies. Thus, both characters violate clear rules of acceptable protagonists, and the target audience rejects them both as unlikeable.

CONCLUSION: False moral premise, protagonist confusion.


THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE (March 2013)
B $30M. US $24M. WW $24M. Dir. Don Scardino.

When Las Vegas superstar magicians, Burt Wonderstone's and Anton Marvelton's act and their 30-year friendship turn stale, a sadistic street showman puts them out of business. Wonderstone's chance meeting with his childhood hero at a retirement center allows him to recover his love of magic and recover his audience.

An all star cast (Steve Carell, Steve Buschemi, Olivia Wilde, Alan Arkin, and Jim Carrey) could not save this disaster of a story due to several fundamental story problems:

a. There is nothing redeeming or noble about the protagonist (Burt Wonderstone played by Steve Carell) until 60 minutes into the 100 minute story. In short we can't like him or root for him, until we've emotionally left the theater. We like him from about 60 minutes to 90 minutes, but at the end we again "wonder" why his character is redeemable. 

b. What happens at 60 minutes in is essentially a moment of grace, but structurally it's the first turning point where the protagonist makes a decision that changes the story's direction. Thus it's more like the Act 1 Climax...30 pages too late, and even if it was a Moment of Grace, it'd be 10 minutes late.  While Burt's goal is clear early on (reinvent his act and make it entertaining again...supposedly, the act has not changed in 30 years), he does not embrace this need (or goal) until the 60 minute mark....way too late...and well after the audience dislikes the megalomanic character. It's fine to start off with an arrogant character, but no later than 25% into the picture we need to have some hope that he can change. About mid point (50 minutes) into the story my wife turned to me and said, "I don't like this."

c. The antagonist, a sadistic street performer (Steve Gray, played by Jim Carey), begins attracting larger crowds that Burt and Anton, and thus creates pressure on Burt and Anton to fix their show. But Gray is not (in story structure) a real antagonist, even though there's some direct competition at a party late in the movie. The reason is that Gray is not doing magic, illusions or slight-of-hand, but catering to the macabre, grotesque tastes of what would normally be an alternative audience.

The filmmaker's assumption that Wonderstone's audience and Gray's audience are the same demographic is wrongheaded and the movie audience subliminally won't buy the incongruity nor the filmmaker's apparent disrespect for the movie audience's emotional attraction to a character. When Wonderstone is at his best he loves life and his audience. But, Gray clearly hates life and demeans his audience.

The real antagonist is Wonderstone's megalomanic fame and his consequential lost love for magic and entertainment. That is, in terms of story structure, Wonderstone and Gray are not opposites, and Gray's antics would naturally never disrupt Wonderstone if Wonderstone had an act that created wonder. The only wonder involved is on the part of the audience toward the filmmakers.

d. The above three problems shows a general disrespect by the filmmakers toward the intelligence of their audience's expectations of emotionally engaging with the characters, rooting for them, or understanding what makes a story. And if that wasn't enough, the final trick that Burt and Anton come up with, to rejuvenate their act, is dramatically disrespectful to all audiences. At first blush, the trick sounds wonderful.... make their audience disappear. But the way they do it demonstrates disrespect of any audience in three ways: (a) Burt, Anton and their crew threaten the lives of their audience by mass drugging them with a inhalant causing the audience to pass out; (b) the crews carry, drag, and toss the bodies as if they were sacks of trash; (c) the filmmakers somehow think that treating people with such arrogant disrespect is funny.

e. The above conspires (no doubt inadvertently by the filmmakers) to SHOW us that Burt really has not lost any of his arrogance toward his audience. That is, Burt's arc is not just late, but it reverses. Although the Wonderstone character's surface nature changes from a man of harsh and belligerent arrogance to one of kindness and humility, his outward actions reveal no real change. He still highly disrespects his audience.

Thus, the moral premise of this film can be summarized like this:

Disrespecting your audience through a stale show and belligerent arrogance
 leads to a cancelled act; but
Disrespecting your audience through dangerous invention and kindness
leads to renewed popularity.