Roger Ebert speaks of the Idiot Plot. It is “any plot containing problems which would be solved instantly if all of the characters were not idiots.” The most egregious Idiot Plots hang the entire film on them, as in most cross-dressing comedies, where the protagonists look nothing like the gender they are impersonating, yet no one notices. Why does no one notice? Because if they did, the movie would be over. Hence, it’s an Idiot Plot: Everyone has to be stupid for the movie to exist.
In less conspicuous examples, the overall plot is fine; it’s only some of the details that require the characters to be idiots. Usually this involves characters making their situations worse through poor decisions of their own, yet failing to realize that their problems are now their own fault. Nearly all horror movies suffer from this, of course. Idiots go into dark basements alone and are terrorized, yet never seem to say, “Shoot! I KNEW I shouldn’t have gone into that dark basement alone!”
I bring up the Idiot Plot because two of this week’s new releases made me think of it — one because it has an Idiot Plot, and the other because it does not.
“Babel” is an overlong, overinflated film from Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Amores Perros”). It has four interconnecting stories set all over the world, and two of them have developments late in the film that are the direct result of the characters making one stupid decision after another.
This is a problem because it makes you lose sympathy for them. Their actions are so outrageously foolish that you think, “Even in the heat of the moment, I would never do something that dumb.” You don’t feel sorry for them as the victims of circumstance anymore.
Meanwhile, “Stranger Than Fiction” is notable for having characters who are all smart, all the time, and who behave the way real people would behave under these circumstances. What’s interesting is that the plot — in which a man discovers that he is the main character in a novel someone is writing — is obviously not realistic. It works, though, because the movie treats it like a legitimate story, not like a goofy premise that requires no effort.
The other new wide release is “A Good Year,” which is a bad movie. It features Russell Crowe doing comedy, and by “doing” I mean “failing at.”
“Borat” goes wide today after opening on about 1,000 screens last week, so if it wasn’t playing where you live before, it probably is now. Go see it, unless you’re certain you will be offended by it.
“Harsh Times,” starring Christian Bale as an L.A. gangster (wait, what?), opens in semi-wide release today, about as many screens as “Borat” had last week. It is not reviewed today because the one screening of it was opposite the “Babel” screening, and I had to choose. (Both were Tuesday. Monday was wide open, no screenings. But when a studio gets it into its head to screen a film on a certain day, it never budges, no matter what. You’d be surprised how often this happens.)
I’ll try to review “Harsh Times” — along with “The Return,” a PG-13 horror film that they didn’t bother screening at all — this weekend.
Oh, and regarding “Babel”: Isn’t that a Paramount film? How did I see it? Ah, but it’s actually Paramount Vantage, Paramount’s wing for arthouse-style films. And believe it or not, Paramount and Paramount Vantage have different publicists in the Seattle/Portland area, so the Paramount ban did not affect me. It’s an example of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, for surely if Paramount wanted me banned from all its screenings, they probably meant that to include Paramount Vantage releases, too. Whoops!