Most stories explore the basics: who, what, where, when and especially why. But some movies skip that last one.
The new Danny Boyle film, “Yesterday,” imagines a world without one of the most influential musical acts of all time, the Beatles. During a global blackout, Jack Malik (Himesh Patel), a middling songwriter, has a bike accident and is knocked unconscious. When he wakes up, he remembers the band, but no one else does.
But we never find out why a blackout causes the world to forget about the Beatles or why Jack remembers them.
It didn’t matter for the film’s primary screenwriter, Richard Curtis. Where many films go out of their way to justify elaborate or quirky premises, Curtis opted to focus only on the existential questions the story posed: How would the Beatles fare if they debuted in 2019? Are performances as important as compositions? And what about the ethics of claiming ownership of music that isn’t yours? Is it stealing if the band didn’t exist to begin with?
“You try and make it as logical as you can,” Curtis said in a phone interview. “But I think the problem is, if you really try and prove the point that something that can’t happen happened, you will tie yourself up in knots.”
This story got me thinking about other films whose plots are based on unique premises with minimal explanation. Since a lot of movie plots seem inexplicable, I came up with some arbitrary rules. Someone’s behavior cannot set the story in motion. (For instance, in the 2000 comedy “Family Man,” it’s implied that Don Cheadle’s character, Cash, causes the holiday ills that befall Nicolas Cage’s Jack Campbell.) The premise has to be almost entirely unexplained. So not “Big” (1988), because the story gets going with a wish, or “The Matrix” (1999), in which the origin story is explained by the characters. Superhero movies don’t count either.
I took a closer look at four such films, though honorable mentions should be given to “What Women Want” (2000), “Stranger Than Fiction” (2006) and “Being John Malkovich” (1999).
Directed by Harold Ramis, the movie imagines the disgruntled weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray in his finest performance) living the same day over and over again in Punxsutawney, Pa.
We never learn why Connors keeps having to live the same day. It just happens, although there is some suggestion that the pattern is linked to Phil’s misanthropy. He eventually evolves from a bitter narcissist to a charitable, loving human being, all by going through the same motions everyday.
Danny Rubin came up with the original premise and wrote it on spec. Columbia Pictures, the studio behind the film, wanted to insert a reason Phil has to endure the punishment of not being able to get to tomorrow. Among the justifications Rubin and Ramis considered: a curse set by a woman whom Connors has wronged.
“It felt so arbitrary. And I thought, ‘Why do I have to do that at all?’ It’s just a waste of time,” Rubin said in an interview. “And I also realized the thing that excited me the most about the premise was that Phil was stuck having to deal with the day, he didn’t know how he got there. But he still has to deal with it.”
Rubin wrote scenes with the curse, but Ramis didn’t end up filming them. Sometimes, it’s best to disregard the studio’s notes.
Ignore the 2003 version starring Lindsay Lohan and Jamie Lee Curtis. The one we are concerned with is the 1976 original with Barbara Harris and Jodie Foster. The film’s story is based on a children’s novel by Mary Rodgers, who also wrote the screenplay.
In the movie, a mother and a teenage daughter find themselves swapping bodies for unclear reasons following an argument. It may seem like I’m breaking my own rule about behavior: Yes, both make a wish at the exact same time before the switch. But it’s not in the presence of anyone in particular. Certainly not a robotic fortune teller, as in “Big,” so I feel this is fine.
The 2003 version may be best known now because it further established Lohan as a budding star. But in that film, written by Heather Hach and Leslie Dixon, the swap is actually explained: It was a result of the consumption of fortune cookies.
‘The Invention of Lying’
This film received mixed reviews when it came out — many critics found it grating. But I’ll get on this hill and defend an ingenious premise from Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson, who wrote and directed the movie, which also starred Gervais.
The comic plays Mark Bellison, a screenwriter in a world where no one can tell a lie. Not white lies. Not big lies. Until Mark, somehow, manages to do it. Of course, he uses this to his advantage: winning money at a casino by saying he’s won when he hasn’t; withdrawing money he doesn’t have from bank accounts; keeping a police officer from arresting his friend for drunken driving.
However, the audience never learns why Mark develops the ability to lie. There is a fleeting look inside his brain, where he seemingly has been given the tool to do it, but really, not much else.
In actuality, there was a scene to explain the discrepancy. Robinson said in an email that they had shot an elaborate opening that took place in prehistoric times, in which a cave man (also played by Gervais) tells his tribe he killed a boar to impress them, when the boar had actually been killed by a falling boulder. It was the most expensive scene to shoot of the entire film, but it ended up on the cutting-room floor. Robinson and Gervais found it unnecessary.
“Ricky and I always felt we wanted to do the bare minimum necessary to explain the premise of the film, so we’d have as much time as possible for comedy and character,” Robinson said.
An explanation of this plot cannot do any justice to the premise of this movie. Written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, it centers on a down-on-her-luck, unpredictable woman named Gloria (played by Anne Hathaway), who goes back to her hometown, where she strikes up a relationship with Oscar, a bartender she grew up with (Jason Sudeikis).
The two find that simply by being at a playground at a certain time, they have the ability to control a monster and robot that are terrorizing Seoul on the other side of the world. Eventually, Oscar turns villainous, and by proxy, so does the robot, causing a showdown with Gloria’s monster and putting the fate of millions of civilians at stake.
There is next to zero explanation as to how this was possible. You’re just supposed to enjoy the ride. (And I did.)
“The reason my characters have giant monster avatars is explained only emotionally,” Vigalondo said in an email. “A rational or scientific origin story would have worked if my movie was centered around the mystery of the monster’s appearance. In this case, the characters never try to solve the mystery. They are just affected by the consequences.”
Sopan Deb is a culture reporter, writing about the intersection of politics and culture, among other topics. He covered Donald J. Trump’s presidential campaign for CBS News, and his work has appeared on NBC, Al Jazeera America and elsewhere. @sopandeb
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