5 Comedies With Twist Endings — And How Good Each Twist Is
This weekend sees the release of Foe, a sci-fi drama set in the future in which a married couple (Saoirse Ronan and Paul Mescal) learn that the husband must go to space as part of a government mission — and that he’ll be replaced at home by a simulant until he returns. Despite its fine actors, the movie is Not Good, featuring a twist ending that is poorly executed. While watching Foe, I thought about the fact that big, shocking twists primarily happen in serious dramas. Bruce Willis can see dead people. Leonardo DiCaprio is actually a mental patient on Shutter Island. Rosebud is a sled. This sort of thing doesn’t happen too often with comedies.
It’s pretty obvious why lighthearted films don’t contain huge twists: Comedies are meant to be fun, so revealing some horrible truth — like, Darth Vader is Luke’s father — isn’t exactly the M.O. But on occasion, a comedy will pull the rug out from under its audience, shocking viewers with a surprise they didn’t see coming. Some surprises are better-executed than others, though, so I decided to highlight five of the most memorable comedy twists, passing judgment on how good the actual twist is. As I suspected, most of these twists are meant to be humorous, but one of them — and, I would argue, the best of the five — is actually quite touching. (And, uh, Spoiler Alert, I guess, if you haven’t seen these movies.)
This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
What’s the Twist? Things are not looking good for the band at the end of This Is Spinal Tap. Nigel (Christopher Guest) has quit the group, leaving David (Michael McKean) and Derek (Harry Shearer) to muddle through on a lackluster American tour that seems like it will be Spinal Tap’s last. But just when David and Derek consider dissolving the band and revisiting their ambitious idea for a Jack the Ripper musical — “Saucy Jack” sounds kinda catchy, right? — Nigel reappears, revealing that, inexplicably, “Sex Farm” has become a massive hit in Japan, giving Tap new life. Nigel rejoins the band, and everything (presumably) ends up happily ever after.
How Good Is the Twist? Let me say first: I adore This Is Spinal Tap. Incredible film. However, the second half of the movie always makes me so sad. Those poor guys, everything is going wrong for them! It’s almost too painful to watch. So even though it might be more likely in real life that Tap would shrivel into irrelevance, the twist is awfully satisfying because it lets the gents reunite and enjoy one last hurrah. (Fun game to play: Where would Spinal Tap be in 2023? Probably playing state fairs and still trying to make people smell the glove.)
Planes, Trains and Automobiles (1987)
What’s the Twist? For most of the film, snarky ad exec Neal (Steve Martin) is desperately trying to extricate himself from Del (John Candy), a needy, backslapping salesman who he’s stuck with as they try to get back home to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving. Eventually, though, Neal’s opinion of Del softens — sure, the guy’s overbearing, but he’s basically a good dude — and they form a bond. Then, just as they’re about to finally be free of one another, Neal realizes something: Del has nowhere to go. Turns out he’s homeless, still grieving the death of his wife years ago. (He had pretended to Neal that his beloved was still alive and waiting for him.) Del didn’t have a reason to get back to the Windy City — he just wanted someone to hang out with for a little while.
How Good Is the Twist? Initially, writer-director John Hughes was going to have Del admit to Neal that he’s homeless, rather than Neal figuring it out on his own. But that ending didn’t work. “In the original version, Candy sort of ambushes Steve,” Planes, Trains and Automobiles editor Paul Hirsch explained. “And the version we came up with was better for both characters, because it gave Candy more dignity, that he wasn’t throwing himself in front of Steve, and it was better for Steve’s character that he had enough empathy to figure out what was going on.”
The twist helped elevate a great comedy into a poignant all-timer. There’s no gimmick or trick to it, completely earning the reveal’s emotional wallop. Plus, the scene helped reinforce the film’s central theme: The more you get to know someone, the more you come to care about them. Which, honestly, is a great message for the holidays.
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988)
What’s the Twist? In this remake of the 1964 comedy Bedtime Story, Freddy (Steve Martin) and Lawrence (Michael Caine) are rival con men who have spent the entirety of the film trying to best one another, deciding to settle their turf war with a bet: Whoever can bilk American heiress Janet (Glenne Headly) out of $50,000 first will get to stay in the fabulous French Riviera, while the loser has to depart. Both men earn the trust of this gullible, lonely beauty, but in the end she pulls the biggest scam of all: She’s actually the infamous con artist known as “The Jackal,” successfully fleecing Freddy and Lawrence, who all this time thought they were duping her.
How Good Is the Twist? Bedtime Story, which starred Marlon Brando and David Niven, didn’t contain the same twist, which was added to the Frank Oz remake. Plenty of heist movies and con-artist flicks have switcheroo endings, but the one in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is especially well-done. Headly, who died in 2017, totally sells her character’s naiveté, then does a believable about-face when we learn her true motives. And when you rewatch the film, part of the pleasure is in seeing Freddy and Lawrence so confidently assume they’ve got her number. They have no idea who they’re dealing with.
Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994)
What’s the Twist? It’s not quite the end of the film, but the major revelation comes when intrepid sleuth Ace Ventura (Jim Carrey) puts it together that the murderer he’s been looking for, disgraced former Miami Dolphins kicker Ray Finkle, is actually… Police Lieutenant Lois Einhorn (Sean Young)! Who he kissed earlier in the movie! Einhorn is a man!
How Good Is the Twist? Obviously, Ace Ventura was basing its big twist around a similar one used in the Oscar-winning 1992 drama The Crying Game. (If the allusion wasn’t obvious, director and co-writer Tom Shadyac included Boy George’s version of the title song in his movie.)
As a plot point, it’s not a bad twist — as a joke, it’s a lot iffier. Ace freaks out over the revelation, pouring toothpaste down his throat and even setting his clothes on fire because he’s so repulsed that he made out with a guy. (When he proves his theory to the rest of the male police force later, they similarly lose it.) Even at the time of Ace Ventura’s release, some condemned the gag, calling it homophobic, although Carrey felt critics missed the point.
“I wanted to keep the action unreal and over the top,” he said in 1994. “When it came time to do my reaction to kissing a man, I wanted it to be the biggest, most obnoxious, homophobic reaction ever recorded. It’s so ridiculous it can’t be taken seriously — even though it guarantees that somebody’s going to be offended.”
Carrey’s a comedic genius, but I think the way the movie recoils at the Finkle/Einhorn twist undermines his argument. The early 1990s were definitely a period where “Ha ha, someone is gay/trans, gross!” jokes were commonplace, which didn’t make them okay.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)
What’s the Twist? During the Cannes Film Festival, when Quentin Tarantino premiered his sprawling portrait of Los Angeles in 1969, knowledgeable viewers got anxious: Oh no, that’s the year when Sharon Tate was murdered. And, sure enough, Tate (Margot Robbie) becomes a central character in this ensemble picture — as do members of the infamous Manson family, who killed her and four others inside her home on August 9th. So as Once Upon a Time in Hollywood winds toward its ending, we braced for the inevitable tragedy that’s about to unfold. Except… it doesn’t. In Tarantino’s version, buddies Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff (Brad Pitt) fend off the killers, saving the day — as well as Tate’s life.
How Good Is the Twist? Tarantino fans shouldn’t have been surprised that he decided to rewrite history. (Inglourious Basterds proposed that Hitler was gunned down during a movie premiere.) Still, some might have felt it was in poor taste to ignore reality and give Tate a happy ending she didn’t get in life. But Tarantino insisted he wanted his twist to honor the late actress.
“I think it’s horrible that she’s been defined by her murder,” he said. “And one of the things that I can say about the film that I am absolutely proud of, because of the movie, I don’t think that’s necessarily the case anymore. I don’t think she is defined by her victim status.”
While I have some issues with that logic — letting her live in a movie doesn’t change the horror of what really happened to her — I do think it’s audacious to offer Tate a better ending than when what actually happened. And it’s undeniably shocking and funny to get to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s finale and realize, nope, this is not concluding the way we thought. Ultimately, Tarantino didn’t just give us a plot twist but a new way of thinking about Sharon Tate in her entirety. It’s hard not to respect his intention.