I hinted that I might post what I think the worst movies to ever blaspheme the good name of hollywood, and that's still coming. But I decided I would go a different route for my first official post, and write something in honor of the DVD release of Slumdog Millionaire, which came out yesterday. For those of you that haven't seen it, what the hell is wrong with you? It won seven academy awards and has been almost unanimously praised (see 94% fresh, the other six percent clearly hate their mother).
But Slumdog is only the most recent film in the 'Rags to Riches' genre. Call it that, or the American Dream, or the Horatio Alger formula, either way it's a story everybody loves to see: the downtrodden, S.O.L. hero breaks free from his barriers and finds happiness... Usually. The thing is, the Rags to Riches plot-line pervades many different other genres. Some of them are feel good comedies, others intense dramas, others lucrative crime heists. The bottom line is audiences love watching wealthy people pretend to be poor people who become wealthy people. Now that the economy has crapped out, I'd imagine these stories to become even more popular. I've compiled a list of some famous "Rags to Riches" movies, some that that you might not put in the category before.
It tops almost every 'greatest movie list' I've ever read, and yet I have a confession: I've never sat down and watched it all the way through. But it's one of the most respected films of all time, and anybody completely unfamiliar with the story should change that.
Though, this certainly isn't what you typically find in a Rags to Riches story. The film depicts the life of a Charles Foster Kane (played by the legendary Orson Welles), and a reporter trying to uncover the secrets of his past. Kane was born dirt poor, but came into mass wealth through a stroke of good luck, and grew to become a wildly successful businessman. Sounds great, yes?
Wrong. The film shows Kane's lust for power and money eat at him as he pushes away those he loves and ends up dying alone, holding some snow-globe and talking about some flower. I won't tell you what the flower means (though, how could you possibly not know?), but let's just say the movie indicates Kane was only happy when he lived in poverty…
The history behind Citizen Kane is fascinating as well. Many people claim it was a harsh parody of the life of William Randolph Hearst, a very wealthy media tycoon. Hearst himself offered 800,000 dollars to destroy all copies and the negative of the film, and when it was refused, ordered his newspapers to never mention it. Check out The Battle Over Citizen Kane, a great documentary about the issue. Or, use Wikipedia. I'm sure it's there.
Of course, I'll find a way to slip in any Disney references that I can. Hopefully you've seen this movie. It's a state law in forty six of the fifty that you must see it to be considered an adult. The poor street rat who finds a genie and marries a princess? Definitely a Rags to Riches tale. Aladdin is a noble hero, however, and never succumbs to greed. He doesn't touch a single treasure in the cave of wonders (but his dumb ass monkey does) and he doesn't wish to be a prince at the end; he frees the genie. It's a moving example of sacrifice, except, why not wish to be a Prince and have Jasmine wish for Genie's freedom? Loopholes, Al, gotta find them.
To be fair, Disney's Cinderella is also a fine demonstration of the motif. But despite a love for Walt Disney, I'm still a dude, and Aladdin is certainly more fitting my gender.
The Pursuit of Happyness
This movie is not so much a 'Rags to Riches' tale as it is a 'watch Will Smith get kicked in the crotch over and over again, but it's okay in the end, cause he's got money' tale. This movie features some of Smith's best acting since Fresh Prince, and he didn't even rap the theme song. He plays Chris Gardner, a man whose wife leaves him with what little money he has, and he decides to change his life and sign up for an six-month internship at a stock brokerage with the possibility of getting a job once it's over. But wait, the internship is unpaid, leaving him with no salary, and eventually, no home.
There's a particular poignant scene, where Gardner convinces his son to play caveman and they have to find a cave to sleep in. The cave they find is a bathroom at a subway station, and Gardner weeps while he holds his sleeping son. Things don't look great until the end. When he becomes a billionaire. Bet that stupid wife regrets her decision now.
The Count of Monte Cristo
Pick any of the six thousand versions of this film you'd like. I choose the most recent, starring Jim Cavizel and Guy Pearce, primarily because it's the only one I've seen, but it's a good one. An up and coming sailor named Edmond Dantes is betrayed by his immensely rich aristocratic friend, Fernand Mondego. Why? "Because you're the son of a clerk! And I'm not supposed to want to be you!"
Locked up in what looks like the shittiest dungeon to be imprisoned in, ever, Dantes has the fortune of meeting an old man who, in a failed escape attempt, digs a tunnel into his cell (gotta love 19th century literary coincidences). They plan a new escape, all while the old man, Priest (played by the late, magnificent Richard Harris), teaches Dantes in manners of education, Philosophy, and how to be a bad ass with a sword. He also reveals to him that he knows the hiding place of a vast amount of treasure.
The movie is only loosely based on the novel (for starters, Mondego and Dantes don't know each other in the latter), but it does a fine job of modernizing the story. We see Dantes use his wealth to gain respect in a society that only respects wealth, and take vengeance on those who wronged him. It's at the end when he realizes his thirst for revenge has harmed him, and he vows that his riches will only be used for good.
Hey, here's a good example of this type of story gone wrong. A treasure explorer goes on a hunt for treasure with his hot ex-girlfriend, and the audience wants to scratch their own eyes out. I actually looked forward to this, since How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days is arguably the best chick flick around. It turns out, Matthew Mcconaughey and Kate Hudson cashed in all the chemistry they had for the first go-around. Spoiler, they find the treasure, but who gives a damn?
Yeah, Kate Hudson's hot, and yes, Mcconaughey could grate cheese on his abs, but when that's the entire movies selling point, it's bound to be terrible.
Clearly there's a huge appeal for these movies, or they wouldn't keep getting made. Something in our human minds just loves watching people earn what they deserve. As Latika explains in Slumdog, Rags to Riches stories offer an escape from the hardships of everyday life. But I think there's a common thing besides money in these stories. Charles Kane had immense wealth and dreamed of a time when he was poor. Jamal went from piss broke to filthy rich in twenty seconds, and really didn't care about it. All he wanted was to find the woman he loved.
I almost listed It's A Wonderful Life here, but because it's not technically a story about gathering wealth, I decided to mention it here as an example of what makes life wonderful, and what makes men rich. The final inscription, "He is no failure that has friends," demonstrates the moral that all these types of stories try to tell us.
When times get tough, it's nice to remember what matters most. These movies where people change their status remind us that real wealth doesn't come from being wealthy. It's the princess Jasmine, the Latika, the Mercedes (Edmond Dantes wife, not the car...), the Priests, the Genies, your son that you'd sacrifice everything for and the childhood memories you have of sledding on a winters day; there are your riches.