How Much Implausibility Can You Get Away With?

I’ve written about realism in the movies and fiction before, but I want to take a different approach to it today. Last night, Denisa and I watched Tower Heist. For those of you who don’t know, it’s a caper film about some high-class apartment building employees who decide to rob a Wall Street fat cat, since he Ponzi’ed them out of their pensions. Looking over the IMDB page, it looks like it was originally conceived as an African American Ocean’s Eleven, and indeed, it even has one of the same writers as that film. (Although one red flag is that it has FIVE writers listed in the credits. Not often a sign of a solid script.)

We enjoyed the movie. It was fun, in a caper-y sort of way. I’d give it a light hearted three stars, maybe two and a half. Eddie Murphy is better in this than he’s been in a live-action movie in years, mainly because he’s playing a character with a backbone, and not a Disney lead. (Go figure.) Ben Stiller is very Ben Stillery, and the rest of the cast is solid, if not necessarily out-of-the-ballpark good.

But what I really want to talk about is the plot. I’ll try not to give away too many spoilers, since some of you might want to watch the movie at some point. Let’s just say that the laws of physics don’t necessarily seem to be followed consistently throughout the movie. Key plot points–seemingly insurmountable plot points–are glossed over off camera. In other words, what you actually see in the movie defies all probability. What you DON’T see in the movie is just plain never going to happen.

And yet it does, and we’re supposed to be okay with that.

And you know what’s funny? I kind of am okay with it. What’s up with that? (For a fuller discussion of just how ridiculous the plot is, go here. But there are major spoilers there, so watch out.)

When I’m writing a book, coming up with a plot, I’ll often get to a spot where I have no idea how in the world the protagonist gets out of the bind I’ve put him/her in. I’ve always taken the approach of solving things in a manner that’s at least fairly plausible. I’ve never just put in a section break, said “twenty minutes later,” and then have the problem magically solved. Mainly because I worry about irritating or alienating my audience.

And yet as an audience member, I was kind of okay when they did just that in this movie.

As I think about, it comes down to whether I want my books to be okay/good, or great/incredible. The plot of Tower Heist is okay/good. The plot to Ocean’s Eleven is fantastic, in my boo. The twists totally work. Not because they’re incredibly believable, but they’re believable enough. Yes, if I take a step back and start studying the plot too hard, then there starts to be some holes here and there, but it passes when I’m in the moment.

Tower Heist doesn’t pull off that stunt. I kept getting thrown out of the movie, wondering just how ridiculous and unbelievable they could really get. That’s not a recipe for a great movie.

Am I alone here? Do most people just not care? How much belief are you willing to suspend before you cross the threshold and give up on expecting the movie or book to be believable? How much should I care as an author?

Deep questions for a Friday, I know. I’d be interested to hear your take on it, though.

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