Friday, April 3, 2015

What's in a name?

There should be no greater sign of creative surrender than naming a movie after one of its characters, right?

If you can't find just the right turn of phrase, variation on a familiar cliche, or particularly striking image or theme from the movie, you could see someone giving up and saying "Oh fuck it ... let's just name it after the protagonist."

"The protagonist has a boring name? Okay, let's change the name so it's not boring."

Having said that, though, some of my favorite movies subscribe to this naming convention. In fact, one such movie has residence in my Flickchart top 20 of all time, as we shall soon see.

So the question really is: If a movie has been named after the main character (or one of the other characters), is that actually a sign of creative deficiency? And if so, should we be able to see that in my rankings of all movies named after a character?

Logically, if all else is equal, movies named after a character should be spread equally among my rankings. If the title really is no sign of a problem with the movie, they should be sprinkled from top to bottom about equally. So in this post, I'm interested in finding out if that's really true.

(And thanks, John Wick, for bringing the question to mind when I watched you this week.)

First I need to talk about what movies I'm actually looking at, or rather, which ones I'm not looking at.

1) No movies named after just the character's first or last name. No Joe or Parker or Greenberg or Frank. Those may have their own kinds of problems, but at least there's something abstract about a title like Joe that can't be claimed if you give Joe a last name.

2) No movies where the character has a particularly flashy name or nickname instead of a given name. So, no Crocodile Dundee, Johnny Dangerously, Joe Dirt, Hudson Hawk or Edward Scissorhands. If the movie had been called Mick Dundee, it would qualify.

3) No movies where there are other words in the title as well. So, no Ace Ventura: Pet Detective or Agent Cody Banks. Those other words add something to the title that gives it additional meaning and/or context. (And in both cases are great titles, says me.)

4) No movies where the name is a famous brand name, or the name of the original source material. That rules out the likes of Robin Hood, Aeon Flux, Dick Tracy, Jane Eyre, Julius Caesar, Billy Budd and Flash Gordon.

5) No movies where it's not the complete name. Sorry, Frances Ha.

6) No movies named after famous people. Goodbye Michael Collins, Ed Wood, Marie Antoinette and Wyatt Earp. (I actually haven't seen Michael Collins, but it's one I immediately thought of.)

The other movie you won't see on this list is John Wick, but not because it doesn't qualify. I've just seen it too recently to rank it on Flickchart. I have a personal policy of waiting 30 days to rank a movie. That gives me a "cool down period" so I can get a better sense of how I really feel about it, before giving it a ranking that will have an impact on all other movies that come up against it.

However, I will say that John Wick is a particularly poor title for this movie. Yeah, everyone's afraid of this lethal killer and his name makes their blood run cold, but that alone doesn't seem justification for naming a movie after him. (I guess it would be like giving the title Keyser Soze to The Usual Suspects.) Especially since this seems like a prime example of modifying the character name so it would make a good title. (Don't light his wick, he's got a short fuse!)

That's plenty of ado -- shall we begin? I'll show you them in order of ranking, and then include a brief comment on whether the name works as the title or not. I've found more than 30 titles that qualify, so I'll try to be brief. Ranking listed is out of 4120 movies ranked.

1) Donnie Darko (2001, Richard Kelly)
Flickchart ranking: #15
Does the title work? Given my love for the movie, I have a hard time saying that anything about the movie doesn't work. But in truth, it's a bit lazy, relying on alliteration to sound more clever.

2) Ruby Sparks (2012, Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris)
Flickchart ranking: #99
Does the title work? It does, because the character is a fictitious creation, and the name has been designed to exemplify traits she has been given by her creator.

3) Annie Hall (1977, Woody Allen)
Flickchart ranking: #174
Does the title work? Again, it's such a great movie that I can't think of it as having any other title. But is there really a reason it needs to be named after her? No. Incidentally, this is Woody Allen's only film that uses this naming convention -- and it's also considered by many to be his best.

4) Billy Madison (1995, Tamra Davis)
Flickchart ranking: #357
Does the title work? I can justify this one based on the fact that it's about a fully grown man who returns to elementary school. I believe he's called Billy even in his everyday life (haven't seen this favorite in something like 15 years), but him going to class with third graders makes the name "Billy" all the more evocative.

5) Erin Brockovich (2000, Steven Soderbergh)
Flickchart ranking: #410
Does the title work? This is a questionable inclusion because it's the name of a real person, but since it's not a particularly famous real person, you can't make the argument that the film was titled that way to sell a brand to us. I suppose it works, but primarily because her last name is colorful. If her name had been Erin Smith, that would not have been the name of her movie.

6) Donnie Brasco (1997, Mike Newell)
Flickchart ranking: #424
Does the title work? This one works well, because it's the name of a fake identity, a bit like in Ruby Sparks. Like Johnny Depp's character himself, the name is designed to give the ring of truth without raising any suspicions among the mafia Depp's character is infiltrating. The name indicates "Italianness."

7) Jerry Maguire (1996, Cameron Crowe)
Flickchart ranking: #467
Does the title work? Again I feel blinded by liking the movie so much. But why does a movie about a sports agent need to bear that agent's name? Answer: It don't.

8) Napoleon Dynamite (2004, Jared Hess)
Flickchart ranking: #648
Does the title work? You could argue that this should be set aside in the Edward Scissorhands category, but this is the character's actual name in the albeit very quirky world this movie presents. It's evocative and fun and it totally works. It is pretty much exclusively a portrait of him, and therefore should be titled as such.

9) Happy Gilmore (1996, Dennis Dugan)
Flickchart ranking: #951
Does the title work? After his first two starring vehicles, it seemed like this would be Adam Sandler's thing ... and then he never did it again. (Despite being involved with Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo, Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star, Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star and Paul Blart: Mall Cop.) Happy Gilmore straddles the line between silly name and real name. It makes less sense as a title here than in Billy Madison.

10) Barton Fink (1991, Joel & Ethan Coen)
Flickchart ranking: #1054
Does the title work? As far as I can tell there is no reason this needs to be the name of this movie. It's just a clever-sounding character name.

11) Charlie Bartlett (2007, Jon Poll)
Flickchart ranking: #1541
Does the title work? I've actually talked about this title on The Audient before, and dissed it because I know they just liked the sound the words made when characters spoke them. The trailers for this featured a succession of characters in a row saying "Charlie Bartlett," making it obnoxiously clear how clever the screenwriters thought they were. The movie is okay, though.

12) Bob Roberts (1992, Tim Robbins)
Flickchart ranking: #1568
Does the title work? This one works better than most because the titular politician has been constructed to seem like an everyman that voters would like to elect. His name is both bland and punchy, like a catchy pop tune. It's a pretty great title.

13) Rocky Balboa (2006, Sylvester Stallone)
Flickchart ranking: #1586
Does the title work? This one deserves its own unique category: character name of a character made famous by the series the movie appears in. While it is a brand name of sorts, it has the useful function of attempting to show us a change in the tenor of the series, a shift to something more realistic. (Or maybe, a return to something more realistic, as the first Rocky is gritty as hell.)

14) Ellie Parker (2005, Scott Coffey)
Flickchart ranking: #1640
Does the title work? In the sense that it is a portrait of one particular struggling Hollywood actress, it makes a certain sense, but it stinks of them having no better options for a title.

15) Jackie Brown (1997, Quentin Tarantino)
Flickchart ranking: #1716
Does the title work? I hate this title, mostly because the title of the book it was adapted from is so vivid and has such impact: Rum Punch. Why QT didn't stick with that title, I'll never know.

16) Michael Clayton (2007, Tony Gilroy)
Flickchart ranking: #1955
Does the title work? This one seems especially useless, because isn't George Clooney's title a bit of a cipher in his own movie? It seems like it's more "about" either Tom Wilkinson's character or Tilda Swinton's character. But I don't remember it all that well and was not all that impressed with it.

17) Albert Nobbs (2011, Rodrigo Garcia)
Flickchart ranking: #2181
Does the title work? Another false identity here. It's a great-sounding name for a butler. I say, it works.

18) Shirley Valentine (1989, Lewis Gilbert)
Flickchart ranking: #2217
Does the title work? It's from the one-character play of the same name, so I can hardly blame them. And since it's just the one character, it makes a certain amount of sense. But it's not particularly memorable, and I'm sure other titles would have served the story equally well if not better.

19) John Carter (2012, Andrew Stanton)
Flickchart ranking: #2737
Does the title work? Leave "of Mars" on the title, and they may have had a hit. Actually, I'm sure the title only had a little to do with the box office failure of John Carter, but the name by itself tells you absolutely nothing about, well, anything. John Carter of Mars? Now you're cooking.

20) Charlotte Gray (2001, Gillian Armstrong)
Flickchart ranking: #2983
Does the title work? As with Shirley Valentine, the original book was also named this. As that's not a property I know, I'm including it here anyway. Big "so what?" here. Didn't like this movie, didn't find the character interesting enough to get a movie named after her.

21) Billy Elliot (2000, Stephen Daldry)
Flickchart ranking: #3074
Does the title work? Billy Elliot will probably never overcome the fact that I saw it on a day when I felt particularly depressed, but I like to think that I wouldn't have liked it even on my best day. No idea why this story of a boy who wants to dance needs to be named after him.

22) Nacho Libre (2006, Jared Hess)
Flickchart ranking: #3119
Does the title work? And Jared Hess makes the list again, with a title/character name just as marginally legitimate as Napoleon Dynamite. (And a movie that's far less legitimate in terms of quality.) Because this is, again, a stylized world, I say, why not?

23) Fred Claus (2007, David Dobkin)
Flickchart ranking: #3278
Does the title work? Easily one of my favorite titles on this list. It perfectly establishes the concept of Santa Claus having an ordinary slacker brother. It's just too bad the movie isn't a bit better after a promising start.

24) Simon Birch (1998, Mark Steven Johnson)
Flickchart ranking: #3422
Does the title work? Like Jackie Brown, they changed the name of the book on this for no reason I can think of. A Prayer for Owen Meany would have been a perfectly fine title. And maybe then it wouldn't have seemed quite so precious and maudlin.

25) Patch Adams (1998, Tom Shadyac)
Flickchart ranking: #3504
Does the title work? He's a doctor named "Patch." Get it? (The character's name is actually Hunter, so this kind of violates my rules. But I'm leaving it in, just to give myself the opportunity to shit on this movie.)

26) Dolores Claiborne (1995, Taylor Hackford)
Flickchart ranking: #3559
Does the title work? Also the name of Stephen King's novel. I have absolutely no idea what this movie was/is about. But I assume the title is not very important.

27) Jack Reacher (2012, Christopher McQuarrie)
Flickchart ranking: #3612
Does the title work? The most similar in function to John Wick. Not a good movie. At least in this case I think the title is an improvement from the source material, which is called One Shot.

28) Larry Crowne (2011, Tom Hanks)
Flickchart ranking: #3668
Does the title work? Larry Crowne, he's a simple fellow.

29) Julian Po (1997, Alan Wade)
Flickchart ranking: #3669
Does the title work? This movie is like a character exercise more than a movie. Christian Slater plays Julian Po, a depressed man who comes to a town and wants to kill himself, but whose life is changed for the better by the townspeople. Or something.

30) Alex Cross (2012, Rob Cohen)
Flickchart ranking: #3858
Does the title work? I debated about whether to include this one, because it probably falls into the brand name category. However, the series of books starring Detective Alex Cross don't actually bear his name. Having a reboot of the Alex Cross movies called Alex Cross has a bit of the same function as calling Rocky VI Rocky Balboa. And it works there so I guess it works here too.

31) Jonah Hex (2010, Jimmy Hayward)
Flickchart ranking: #3893
Does the title work? Yeah yeah, it's based on a comic book character. But I'd never heard of that character before. Whatever. Am I still doing this?

32) Dom Hemingway (2013, Richard Shepard)
Flickchart ranking: #3987

So one thing I noticed is that surprisingly few of these are out-and-out terrible. There's a decent number that are actually quite good. Let's see if the average Flickchart ranking bears this out ...

The combined rankings of the 32 movies equal 67,366, which divided by 32 equals 2105. The dead middle of my chart would be 2060, so this is very close, and proves ... nothing. Well, it proves that whether a movie is named after one of its characters has next to no bearing on its quality.

But hey, we had a fun discussion, didn't we?


Don Handsome said...

Gosh, I love this piece. So much fun. Thanks.

Jackie Brown was used as a title because the tweaks Tarantino made to Rum Punch were all to elevate Pam Grier as an icon and thus as virtual product placement within the film. But he couldn't call the movie "Pam Grier", so he made the character name synonymous with his product (thus that "Pam Grier IS Jackie Brown" ad campaign) and then named the movie after her. I happen to love the throws you right back - evoking Foxy Brown (also synonymous with Pam Grier) - and with that font presenting it the title tells you everything you need to know about the flick.

Nick Prigge said...

I'm going to respectfully disagree with you on "John Wick" being a bad title. I'd argue it's a DELIBERATELY bad title because I think there is a tongue-in-cheek nature to much of the film. I think it's actually lampooning what you're essentially lampooning in this post. A post which I love, by the way, because, yeah, this is a concept the movies are always falling back on. I love the attention you gave this topic.

One named-after-the-character movie that has always intrigued me is "Good Will Hunting", which wouldn't necessarily fit your criteria. But when I hear that title I somehow never think of "Will Hunting". It seems like it's referring to something else. It's a title that I don't like, that vexes me, yet it somehow stands out.

Derek Armstrong said...

Thanks, Don and Nick!

Don - I buy that reasoning behind the title change. However, now there will never be a movie called Rum Punch, and that is a wonderful title.

Nick - Okay, I see that angle. As for Good Will Hunting, I have long thought that was one of the lamest titles I've ever heard. You're right that it won't qualify for exactly what I'm doing here, but it qualifies on my parallel list of Awkward Titles That Make You Say "Huh"?