The Art of Subversion

One of the things we love seeing here at Save the Movies is the subversion of expectations. Heck, we’re four episodes into this podcast, and it’s safe to say that all of these films subvert expectations, some in simple ways, some in larger ways. If you take away one truth from this site, it’s this: it’s cool to do the unexpected. There’s an added bit there which says, only if you do it well.

Some of these movies are more obvious subversions than others. Killer Klowns from Outer Space is an homage to classic ’50s horror movies with the typical alien invader replaced by terrifying extraterrestrial clowns. Deep Blue Sea has the big shocking subversion in the middle of the film (you know the one we’re talking about), but also, the wonder that is LL Cool J’s Preach character, who, if you’ve listened to our episode on that one, makes the movie.

What’s fascinating is how rarely it happens that a movie does genuinely surprise us and how often a movie avoids the expected. We’re not talking about mere cliches that are often relied on to hold a movie together. Even the small things can be a pleasant surprise.

Recently, we were struck by two movies, neither of which is terribly remarkable overall. Amusing stories, yes, but not all-time-classics. It’d be tempted to even call them disposable. But both do something small that elevates them beyond mere forgettable, entertaining films. They do it by NOT doing something.

True Memoirs of an International Assassin is a Netflix original film about a guy (played by Kevin James) who writes a book about being an international assassin (you probably figured that out) that gets marketed as non-fiction. Before he knows it, he’s wrapped up in a plot to kill a South American president because, well, it’s that kind of movie. It’s an engaging, fun comedy, but where it becomes something more is the absence of any sort of love interest for our protagonist.

Zulay Henao plays a DEA agent who teams up with James. In another movie, Henao would be the love interest, a sexy, tough agent who spars verbally with our hero until he saves her life and wins her over. It’s such an expected archetype that it’s genuinely surprising when things don’t pan out that way. Yet by the end of the movie, our DEA agent and our intrepid hero aren’t romantically linked. There’s really not even the hint of it.

Instead, Henao’s character plays more like the straight man to James’s everyman. Their interplay reminded me more of buddy comedies than romantic ones, and there’s no kiss, no guy-gets-the-girl wink here. There’s just a funny action comedy featuring a goofy guy and an attractive woman.

Let’s restate that. Henao’s Rosa Bolivar isn’t a prize for our hero to win. She’s her own person with her own goals. She saves our protagonist’s life, and he saves hers. For the most part, her gender is irrelevant, aside from one or two comments that are met with derision from Rosa. She even has the single best fight in the whole movie which involves beating the tar out of a bad guy, flying through a window, and flying through another window.

In the final confrontation, James’s Sam and Henao’s Rosa are working together to beat the bad guy. The final subversion comes when Sam tries to act cool and gets smacked down by Rosa.

The other subversive film, less obvious, is Office Christmas Party, a raunchy comedy taking an office party gone wrong to its extremes. The movie avoids the most obvious Christmas movie cliche there is: It’s not really about Christmas. It simply takes place during Christmas time. There’s nothing about the spirit of the season. Nobody learns a valuable lesson about giving. Characters do have arcs, but not one of those arcs is spurred on or catalyzed by the holiday season.

It’s a small thing, but it is worth noting that both films are improved by these subversions. For Memoirs, it allows the story to focus on the plot and on Sam’s personal growth, which is larger than simply looking for a woman to romance. For Party, it makes the arcs our characters go through seem more real, more lasting, rather than a byproduct of schmaltzy sentimentality.

(Disclaimer: 1/2 of us at Save the Movies isn’t really a Spirit of the Season sort of guy. Hint: His name isn’t Scott.)


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