There are a few universal truths I have learned from watching movies throughout my lifetime: Killing is only OK if the guys are bad, love is more important than stuff and, given the choice, always bet on black. The lessons imparted by films may seem trite or cloying at times, but they are always important because they reflect the principles and priorities of our culture. We use the morals from movies as blueprints for our own lives, so even though infidelity, brutality and deceit can exist in a story, we know that by the end someone is going to be held accountable for it all, preferably while being karate kicked out of an airplane.
But every once in awhile we get confused. A plot device shows up in so many movies and across so many genres that we mistake it for one of those lessons we're supposed to be applying to our lives. The trouble is, when we try to shoehorn fictional tools into reality, we only end up frustrated and angry that we aren't any good at living according to rules that don't actually exist. Let me show you what I mean.
Up in the Air/Crazy, Stupid, Love./Failure to Launch/Knocked Up/The Family Man
The moral of a lot of movies, romantic comedies in particular, is that we all need to check in with our priorities now and again to be sure we're still on the right track in life. Workaholics need the realization that love is more important than money, and reluctant adults have to see the value of growing up. So far, it's a fine lesson.
The problem is that 100 percent of movie characters who bother to take an honest look inside themselves realize they've been sucking at life the whole time. Of course, they have to have this realization, otherwise movies would be short and boring. But with every protagonist discovering how awful they've been through introspection and then hopping back on the right path to happiness, movies are inadvertently teaching their audience that if you look at your own life and don't see something wrong, then you are blind to your own problems.
Only one of these people is on the path to personal betterment.
These movies have made us hypervigilant about fussing with our personal character because the consequences of failing to find our own faults means we could be living a lie forever. But it also forces everyone into a state of artificial angst, where it seems impossible to be truly happy unless we've discovered some awful truth about ourselves. In reality, living this way make us terrible, self-centered people. Fear that something might be wrong with our lives even when we feel great is exactly why cleanses have gained traction, as well as
The Matrix/Slumdog Millionaire/Forces of Nature/Bruce Almighty
An easy way for films to ensure that the protagonist ends up with the right love interest or that the right characters survive a disaster is to blame it all on destiny. Even films that don't blatantly mention fate by name still rely on chance encounters and pure luck to keep a story moving forward. The alternative would be a movie in which a bunch of bullshit happens with no relationship to the plot until it finally stops happening and credits roll. That's a little too close to life for anyone to pay money to see. A story literally relies on some kind of providence because that's the only way to get to the right ending. Unfortunately for an audience, that starts to look like a message after a while.
"She never would have become my wife's friend if I wasn't supposed to sleep with her."
Surrendering to fate works out so well in films, it's easy to understand why we'd try to apply it to reality. After all, it's comforting to believe that our lives are headed toward a happy ending. The problem is that there are two main differences between reality and films:
1) There is no ending in your life except when you die.
2) In the real world,
Destiny only works when it's built around one person's story because without fail, some auxiliary character is going to get shit on and then die. Movies need monumental travesties or disasters to happen so that the main character can learn a lesson or fall in love or become, like, a painter or something, but in reality, those disasters are hurting (sometimes even killing) people who probably thought fate had something better in store for them than to be used as a building block for someone else's narrative. We can't all be the center of destiny because life doesn't work that way. Yes, we all think we're Neo in The Matrix, but some of us have to be the security guards he mows down in the lobby while saving Morpheus.
Return of the Jedi/Serenity/3:10 to Yuma/American History X
The only thing we love more than watching a movie villain die is watching a movie villain repent, and in the case of Darth Vader, both at the same time. Films offer us the gratification of seeing shitty people finally realize how shitty they've been and then start to feel bad about it, or, if they were being shitty on purpose, we at least get to see them fall from high-rises.
"I regret nothing!"
This reckoning happens with such frequency in film that we subconsciously start to expect it from our own lives. It feels like one of those rules life has to adhere to if it's ever going to make any sense. It's the foundation behind every occurrence in fiction of Peter standing at the pearly gates checking a list to see who's allowed in the club. While movies may not have invented it, they certainly perpetuated the idea.
Sadly, the depressing truth is that awful people will likely go on being awful forever. While we expect school bullies to have their comeuppance one day, or for arrogant people to finally feel some shame, these things rarely happen because life isn't actually that satisfying. Worse, not everyone operates on the same scale of ethics. There are millions of detestable people out there right now who can justify every miserable thing they do. Even if you had the opportunity to sit them down and explain why they are objectively shitty, they wouldn't understand your position, and there's also a good chance they would try to poke you in the eye. So even though we sit seething and waiting for coworkers, exes and eye pokers the world over to finally have the moment of introspection we've been hunting for since the fourth entry on this list, that day may never come. Sorry. So now the alternative is figuring out how to get them up to the top floor of a high-rise.
Blue Valentine/The Break-Up/Little Children/The Good Girl/The Notebook
We've discussed before how miserable movies are at doling out advice on finding love, but they're even worse at teaching us how to keep it. For any romantic movie that starts with a happy couple, it's almost guaranteed that they will be dating or married to other people by the credits. Audiences are only interested in the beginnings and endings of relationships, not all the tedious good times in the middle. The consequence, however, is that filmmakers are then stuck in the position of tearing a couple apart in the same movie where they're trying to point out the power of love. The solution: The newly found love in the story has to be superior in every conceivable way so that audiences will say, "Yes, of course, that's what a relationship is really supposed to be."
Real love only exists in torrential rains.
That sets a dangerous precedent for real-world relationships, though. No one is living out that lustful, unstoppable, consistently passionate version of love endorsed by films because we have to live it for a lot longer than 90 minutes and that would be exhausting. Real relationships are hard and ugly sometimes. They are filled with petty, asinine fights where people say regrettable things, but according to every movie about love, that's a sure sign the relationship is a few short scenes from ending in flames. We are not the Jacks and Roses from Titanic or the Noahs and Allies from The Notebook, because no one is. In fact, just about every couple is more accurately represented by the doomed relationships they abandon in the middle of the movie. According to film logic, you are the antagonist in your significant other's love story. We all are.
The main benefit of watching TV is seeing the plight of sad bastards who aren't you.
The 'wellness' market is thriving right now.
Most people have a pretty basic idea of what it's like to be a parent.
There's no shortage of downright absurd conspiracy theories out there.