Admit it. The first time you saw the trailer for Keenen Ivory Wayans’ “Little Man,” you did a double take, turned to the person next to you and said, “What the $@#&?” As tiny “baby-faced” thief Calvin Sims, Marlon Wayans’ head is CGI’d onto a little person’s body — something that just doesn’t look right. At all. But that doesn’t stop an adoptive family and all their friends from thinking the freaky little dude is actually a baby.
Wacky chaos ensues!
That set-up is what’s come to be known in Hollywood as “high concept,” i.e., a film that can be summed up in a quick sentence, and the fewer words the better. (“Little person poses as baby in order to retrieve stolen diamond.”) The idea is that simple concepts make for easy-to-sell movies. One corollary to that notion, of course, is that studio executives are too busy and/or too stupid to take the time to listen to a complicated pitch about a film with a multi-layered plot and nuanced characters.
One could argue that high concept has been around since the dawn of film, but it really became pre-eminent in the late ’70s, when marketing and merchandising became as important as storytelling. “Flash Gordon meets cowboy movie” sound like something you’ve seen? It’s called “Star Wars.” ” ’Jaws’ in a haunted house in space?” That would be “Alien.” ” ’Alien’ as a war picture?” Hello, “Aliens.” It’s that simple.
See if you can name the following movies based on these brief descriptions:
1) Bus with a bomb.
2) Cop and bad guy switch faces.
3) Serial killer bases murders on the seven deadly sins.
4) Human adopted by elves seeks his roots.
Do we really need to supply the answers? Okay, in order, “Speed,” “Face/Off,” “Se7en” and “Elf.”
Now try to name the movie that matches the following descriptions:
1) Outsider teen struggles to find his place in the world.
2) Man’s past comes back to haunt him.
3) Racial differences impact members of a community.
4) Quirky family struggles with dysfunction.
We were thinking of “Rushmore,” “A History of Violence,” “Crash” and “The Royal Tenenbaums,” but those descriptions could also apply to “Napoleon Dynamite,” “Citizen Kane,” “Do the Right Thing” and “What’s Eating Gilbert Grape?” and hundreds more.
What separates those eight films from high-concept products is that they’re built primarily on characterization, rather than merely on plot. Relying on characterization is also an approach far different from building a film on the personality of an actor, — another ploy from the realm of high concept.
Lot of HC films have been built around a hot movie star, of course, either playing to their perceived strengths or placing them in a seemingly incongruous role. Jim Carrey as God! (“Bruce Almighty”); Robin Williams in drag! (“Mrs. Doubtfire”); Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito as fraternal twins! (“Twins”); Vin Diesel as a nanny! (“The Pacifier”).
The cinematic results are usually putrid, especially if the flavor of the month isn’t an actor at all. Witness Vanilla Ice as a rebel without a cause (“Cool as Ice”); Shaquille O’Neal as a genie (“Kazaam”); Justin Guarini and Kelly Clarkson as a Frankie and Annette for the Aught Generation (“From Justin to Kelly”); and “Larry the Cable Guy: Health Inspector” (a movie that had us pining for the cinematic mastery and risk-taking of the “Ernest” series).
It’s not uncommon for high-concept films to produce offspring. Tons of movies have been sold to studios with little more than the following equation as the pitch: 1 (high-concept movie) + 2 (different setting) or perhaps 3 (another seemingly incongruous high-concept movie) = money in the bank.
“Road Warrior” at sea begets “Waterworld.” “Die Hard” on a plane makes for “Passenger 57.” “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” plus “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” equals “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” “Titanic” meets “The Shining” adds up to “Ghost Ship.”
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Other HC films are the result of an attempt to turn a hot aspect of popular culture into a movie — even if it’s something without any narrative potential. Consider ephemera such as trading cards (“The Garbage Pail Kids Movie”), The Jerry Springer Show (“Ringmaster”) or Mariah Carey’s career (“Glitter”), not to mention almost every single movie based on a “Saturday Night Live” sketch. (Try saying “It’s Pat” without shuddering.)
This is not to say that all HC flicks have to suck. It all depends on who makes the movie. 1993’s “Groundhog Day” (“Man is forced to relive one day over and over”) boasts a clever script and terrific casting anchored by Bill Murray’s first genuinely nuanced performance, turning that film into a high concept classic. 1988’s “Die Hard” is based on such a perfect HC idea (“Lone man takes on group of terrorists”) that it’s inspired dozens of retreads, all of them lacking the characterization and believability (within context) of John McTiernan’s thoroughly entertaining original.
Of course, there are entire genres of film that are inherently high concept, mostly science fiction, horror and low-budget cult films. It’s hard to think of a movie in any of those categories that can’t be summed up in one sentence, with the exception of headier fare like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” “The Wicker Man” or “The Big Crimewave” (1985).
But with more tiresome HC movies, it almost feels as if screenwriters wrote down random nouns, conjunctions, verbs and adjectives on index cards, tacked them all up on a bulletin board, blindfolded themselves and just start throwing darts. DRAGONS … IN … FUTURE (“Reign of Fire”); MONKEY … PLAYS … BASEBALL (“Ed”); SMART … SHARKS (“Deep Blue Sea”); TALKING … BABIES (“Baby Geniuses”). Yeesh.
But every once in a while, high concept can be (at least in theory) genius. Like the notion of one in a million immortal word-processing monkeys eventually writing “Hamlet,” the perfect alignment of darts hit SNAKES … ON … PLANE and gave the world a notion so succinct, so perfect in its combining of numerous primal fears (flying, snakes, claustrophobia, death) that discussing, prognosticating and ranting about it became an instant Internet phenomenon based on the title alone.
Of course, the downside is that “Snakes on a Plane” will undoubtedly launch a new wave of imitative HC films about terrifying creatures infesting modes of transportation. We’re gonna get a jump on the competition and go ahead and pitch “Spiders on a Bus,” “Rats on a Train” and “Screaming Poopy Babies in a Hummer.”
Hollywood, we await our check.
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