Classic movies help hold our society together, providing shared experiences and catchphrases. Every generation has its signature movies, and some movies are so great they seem to transcend time. But here's the thing: There is a surprisingly large number of classic movies, beloved by millions, that actually completely fall apart in the second half.
I said the second half, not the first half-second.
It doesn't seem possible, but very often, when we choose to cherish a movie and exalt it above the rest, it's on the basis of a handful of indelible, nonstop repeatable moments, and even if they all come in the first half of the film followed by a big nothing, we don't seem to mind so much. And by the way, I'm not being exact with that "second half" language. It could be the second half; it could be the third act. It's not an exact science. All that matters is that there is a substantial amount of great filmmaking that was beaten to death by its evil twin.
"What?" you exclaim while kicking over all the candles in your Bill Murray shrine. Well, calm down, tiger. Yes, Stripes is a great movie, but look like two lines above. This article is about great movies. But if you remember all the things you love about this movie, I bet they're all from the first half. Think of your favorite parts. Is it Bill Murray leaving an angry passenger in his cab stranded on a bridge? Is it Harold Ramis telling the recruiter he and Murray are willing to try homosexuality or teaching his English as a second language class the words to the "Da Doo Ron Ron"? Maybe it's Francis at orientation or Bill Murray talking about his underwear. Maybe it's the training scenes and references to Old Yeller or what feels like the climax of the film when a rag-tag bunch of cadets finishes basic training with flying colors, while Murray proclaims, "That's the fact, Jack!" Holy crap, so many memorable, classic moments ... and they're all in the first half of the movie.
"That's the fact, Jack. You can go home now."
But after all that goodness there's a second half in which the boys hop in a super tank and run, uh, I guess ... some sort of a mission? Remember that? No? Of course not -- no one remembers that, because Stripes completes its story arc when Bill Murray and the cadets finish basic training. His character goes from being out of shape and undisciplined to highly trained and fit. It just happens too soon, so enter super tank and a couple of wacky Russian border patrol guards, and you have all the parts of the movie you don't remember. It's almost like we had Stripes and its subpar sequel combined in one movie.
"Sure, this wasn't my finest hour, but in just 15 years, I'll be the dad on Freaks And Geeks!"
New Line Cinema
Will Ferrell's Buddy The Elf has become a modern-day Christmas staple like Frosty The Snowman, Jack Frost, or that uncle who stays way too long over the holidays. It's a great character, and it's a pretty good movie, until it's not.
"I like the first two-thirds! Smiling and the first two-thirds of this movie are my favorite!"
With Elf, the problems happen in the third act -- and if you think about it, it makes sense. In most movies, there's a "good guy" and a "bad guy" -- even if they're not literal. A bad guy would be a shark like in Jaws or a disease like in The Fault In Our Stars (I guess? I walked out of the theater before it started when I suddenly realized I wasn't an eighth-grade girl). But even though Elf is a delightful comedic romp, deservedly beloved by millions, there isn't much of a bad guy. It's a fish-out-of-water story, so the "bad guy" is the challenges of the society, or perhaps James Caan's character, who is initially resistant to his son. By Act 3, however, those have been mostly resolved, and you sense the filmmakers felt compelled to raise the stakes. Enter ... THE CENTRAL PARK RANGERS!!!
New Line Cinema
"BEHOLD, THE WONDER OF NEEDLESSLY PADDING THE THIRD ACT!"
Suddenly, the whole point of the movie is a giant reindeer-based car chase with enemies that simply didn't exist until this point, and they go away just as quickly. There's a very famous beat sheet in Hollywood by Blake Snyder, who wrote the screenwriting book Save The Cat. It's a great guide for telling a story, and I've even used it in my novels, but Elf suffers from adhering to it too tightly. Snyder calls Act 3 "Bad Guys Close In"; almost all movies have it. But typically, it's an escalation of existing problems in the film, not completely new ones. Going back to Jaws, that's why the shark comes up on the boat in Act 3 and eats Quint. If Act 3 of Jaws dealt with a bunch of water-skiing accountants from the IRS surprising Brody with a tax audit, that would make a lot less sense.
Spoilers! (Especially for Quint.)
#3. Cast Away
20th Century Fox
Quick! What do you remember about Cast Away? Is it the super well-filmed and compelling plane crash footage? Or maybe it's fat Tom Hanks dancing around a fire or thin Tom Hanks spearing a fish from 20 feet out. Odds are super good your memories include his best friend, Wilson the volleyball. Yep, Cast Away is a memorable movie, and it's especially memorable if you shut it off after he gets off the island.
"Float away with me! Don't watch what comes next."
But nothing compelling happens in the real world. And why would it? It's not a story about adjusting to life after isolation and struggle. It's a movie about man versus the elements. Once Hanks' character is rescued, there simply isn't enough steam to sustain anything memorable. Indeed, the only things I remember about the post-island stuff are scenes that are memorably bad. Like Helen Hunt doing the equivalent of a spit take in fainting from surprise that her lost love Hanks is still alive.
Of course, there's the scene where Hunt runs out into the rain, abandoning her family and beseeching Hanks to drive her away, until she says, "No, wait. Never mind." See? Hunt, like the movie, literally doesn't go anywhere in the third act.