A good friend of mine, fellow film enthusiast, and writer/creator of Off the Mark Thoughts, Myers, has been kind enough to agree to occasional content for this site. This week, he examines the ensemble film.
Myers Monday: Examining the Modern Ensemble Film
When selecting a movie, whether consciously or unconsciously, we all make our choice based on a specific detail. That detail can be as simple as a recommendation or specific as being a fan of the cinematographer. But more than likely, you choose a movie based on the actors involved; therefore, an ensemble movie featuring many your favorite actors should be at the top of your list. Yet, most people immediately disregard this type of movie like it is the sequel to The Room. This instinct probably originated because audiences have been scarred by the recent poor excuse of ensemble movies.
What is an ensemble movie? Well, the simplest explanation I could piece together was that it is a film in which the principal actors and performers are assigned roughly equal amounts of importance and screen time. This excludes most Judd Apatow and John Hughes films. It is not as easy as, ‘oh, there are a bunch of actors that I know in this movie. It must be an ensemble.’ This is where the word is misused and also gets most it bad reputation. In theory, an ensemble should make a film better, not worst.
But over the past few years, high-profile “films” like Valentine’s Day and New Year’s Eve have become the go to example of what to expect from this genre. It’s a shame that Gary Marshall’s poorly written plots and ill-conceived interweaving have sullied a type of filmmaking that can be really good when done right.
I’ll admit, after renting both of the previously mentioned films, I’ve become hesitant at spending two hours watching an ensemble movie. But recently, I bit the bullet, and rented 10 Years and I’m glad I did. The 2012 release stars Channing Tatum, Justin Long, Kate Mara, Chris Pratt, and Rosario Dawson. Not exactly a cast full of “A-listers” like Marshall’s films, but one that was perfectly casted so that the actors blended together to make entertaining film with plenty of rewatchability. Sprinkle in great supporting performances from Ari Graynor, Aubrey Plaza and Max Minghella, and you have exactly what Marshall’s films were missing: Character that fit together.
This is true of other great ensemble movie such as The Family Stone, Love Actually, and to a lesser extent, The Goonies and The Breakfast Club. If you’re going to cast actors that need to be friends or family, they need to look and feel realistic to the audience. The Perks of Being a Wallflower’s writer/director Stephen Chbosky said that he made it a point to try and make Charlie’s family in film look like they could have been related. That is an idea that should be followed by all filmmakers, especially those that want to use an ensemble.
Unlike the fatigue felt with romantic comedies, the ensemble movie has a very fixable problem. The director, producer, and/or casting director need to stop worrying about star power. Think of it in terms of baking a cake. The ingredients required are used because the work well together, not because they taste good individually. Sure, vanilla, chocolate, lemon and Frank’s Hot Sauce taste good on their own, but a good cake they do not make.
So the next time you’re at Blockbuster…uh, I mean Redbox and/or Netflix and you come across a movie that celebrates an ensemble cast, take a chance because not every one stars Bon Jovi and Ludacris. And it would be a shame if you missed a great movie because of that.