Most movies just try to do one thing well. That’s not laziness, either. It’s incredibly hard to do that one thing to the best of your abilities, and movies are composed of a billion moving parts, so it makes sense that even filmmakers with more talent than others would focus on hitting one nail square on the head. For instance, a good horror movie wants to be scary; a romance, to re-create the feelings of falling in or out of love; a drama, to get you invested in the inner lives of its characters; and on and on. The categories aren’t hard and fast, and there’s obviously an element of multiple categories in most movies — action movies will have comic relief, a romantic comedy might bump into a maudlin moment, etc. — but for the most part, movies tend to aim for that one thing, so much so that you can pretty comfortably sum up a movie by talking about its basic genre or goals.
But there’s a hybrid kind of movie that can successfully exist in many of these categories at once. I call them “movie-movies,” because that’s the kind of wordsmith you become with a journalism degree. I’m talking about those movies that feel like full meals, that can deftly encompass action and suspense and humor and romance and character, all with a verve and energy that feels fresh and fleeting when we find it. They aren’t one thing with a hint of something else; they’re totally two things at once, or three, or more. They’re often categorized as comedies, in large part because comedy is a more forgiving genre when it comes to bending the rules. (A comedy that suddenly gets serious can feel like real life; a drama that suddenly turns goofy can feel like a practical joke being played on the viewer.) They’re also often slotted into one main category because it’s easier to get a handle on them that way, but they’re so much more than that.
Here’s a good example: The Princess Bride. It’s genuinely romantic: Westley and Buttercup are players in a quest for true love. It’s genuinely funny: the comedy is handled with a perfect touch, thanks to writer William Goldman and director Rob Reiner. It’s genuinely dramatic: the story is shot through with torment and triumph, anchored by chase scenes and sword fights. It doesn’t quite feel like anything else. You’d never say to someone, “You should see The Princess Bride, it’s hilarious,” even though it is. You wouldn’t call it a drama or a suspense story, though it’s very much both of those, too. It’s a movie-movie, a full-on, all-around piece of American pop cinema.
Or take Sneakers: It’s a geopolitical drama about the power of the information age in the aftermath of the Cold War, and a heist thriller, and a caper comedy, and a character-driven ensemble piece. There’s Bull Durham, which does full duty as a romance, a romantic comedy, an essay about humility and faded glory, and maybe the best baseball picture ever made. There’s Grosse Pointe Blank, a pitch-black comedy, an awkward love story, and a coming-of-adulthood tale that mines the horror of high school reunions for every bit of introspection and depression they can bring. High Fidelity. Raiders of the Lost Ark. Romancing the Stone. Tootsie. (Hollywood in the 1980s was, for a while, a machine at making these.) Half the Coen brothers’ movies. A good chunk of Hitchcock. Midnight Run. Out of Sight. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. You’ve probably got a handful that you’re thinking of right now. These are wonderfully entertaining movies, but what is it that makes them work so well? And why don’t more movies try to be like them?
For starters, movie-movies have the confidence to avoid playing to the broadest possible audience. It might seem like that’s what they’re going for — after all, they bridge multiple genres and appeal to a variety of age groups — but the reverse is actually true. By trying to make the best, most specific type of movie they could, the filmmakers actually created stories with broader appeal. When you mechanically try to four-quadrant your movie, you inevitably wind up with something that feels safe and over-tested, as opposed to something willing to stand on its own and invite viewers to come in their own time. It’s a risk.
Part of that also means movie-movies tend to avoid common or easy stories. On paper, it might not make sense to do a wacky romantic adventure that’s actually a story being told by an old man to his grandson, or to have your leading man spend most of his on-screen time dressed as a woman, or to inject conspiracy theories and farce into an espionage thriller. The concepts feel a little too messy, a little too ready to get out of hand, and it’s true that any one of these movies could’ve gone wrong in one of a thousand ways and wound up a forgettable wreck instead of a memorable feature. You’ve seen dozens of movies about high school reunions; you probably haven’t seen one about an assassin who goes to his reunion and falls in love again. These movies can feel all-encompassing because they’re willing to go outside the lines that constrict almost everyone else.
Their real triumph, though, and what gives them the power to connect with us so well, is that these movies operate with the understanding that real life is never just about one thing. Honest, good movies that understand that — the ones expertly weave genres together and acknowledge that the best way to find the truth is to look everywhere you can — are primed to be rewarding in ways that others aren’t. The stories we tell ourselves to frame our experience are always a spiky mix of comedy and drama, veering from sublime to surreal. Nothing’s ever just drama, or comedy, or romance. It’s never that easy.