A Look at One-Shtick Directors
Last week The Last Airbender opened to a decent box office and considerable criticism, particularly of racist casting. Perhaps Weird Al summed it up best on Twitter: “I think the studios should give M. Night Shyamalan just thirty or forty more chances to make another good movie—then THAT’S IT.”
M. Night Shyamalan is an infamously one-trick-pony director. But could he finally get it right, if not this time, then next time? Can a one-trick director change? We looked at four other one-shtick directors to judge whether optimism—or pessimism—is in order.
Shticks: Neurotic Jewish characters, New York setting
These trademark shticks were integral to Allen’s sense of humor and filmmaking style, which earned him acclaim and awards. But as the ’00s approached, more and more voices claimed Allen was repetitive and lacked freshness. And indeed, his new films were less successful.
For whatever reason, Allen did start deviating from his familiar formula. While his films remained talky and character driven, he lost the usual shtick with titles like London-based Match Point, Cassandra’s Dream and Barcelona-based Vicky Cristina Barcelona.
So did he succeed in turning over a new leaf? Some of the aforementioned movies did really well—especially Vicky Cristina Barcelona. But in his newest film, Whatever Works, Allen revives the neurotic Jewish shtick. As for his upcoming film, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger … we’ll find out in September.
Shtick: Slow-motion action scenes (especially with doves …)
Since he burst into the Western world in the ’80s, John Woo has become synonymous with highly stylized action. Films like The Killer, Hard Boiled and A Better Tomorrow attracted Hollywood’s attention, and in 1993 Woo moved from Hong Kong to the U.S. Despite the different continent and language, Woo did not forget his shtick in films like Face\Off and Mission: Impossible 2.
But did the shtick lose its power with the continental transfer? Face\Off got great reviews and did very well at the box office, but MI: 2 received mediocre reviews claiming that Woo depends on stylistic slow motion instead of developing his characters.
Ever since, Woo’s work has continued to deteriorate, failing both critically and financially.
In 2008 he returned to his homeland of China, maybe in hopes of a visit from a white dove. And indeed, he directed a two-part Chinese historical epic—with doves—called Red Cliff. Maybe his hope was fulfilled, as it got good reviews, and did quite well financially in China (although not necessarily worldwide). It remains to be seen what will happen with his next English language work.
Shtick: Surreal, atmospheric films that no one really understands
David Lynch’s shtick was evident right from the beginning. His first film, Eraserhead (1977), marked a style that has not changed since: weird, surreal, even experimental, understood by very few except for some pompous film critics who wish to appear smarter than everyone else …
But even critics wearied of him slightly over the years, and his films attracted worsening reviews—Lost Highway being the least acclaimed to date.
Then Lynch surprised critics and audiences alike with the heartwarming The Straight Story—the most un-Lynch-like film possible. Widely considered a masterpiece, it seemed to be just what Lynch needed to gain newfound respect, even after he returned to his shtick with subsequent works. His latest creation, Inland Empire, is considered one of his most bizarre works, yet was still critically acclaimed.
We don’t yet know what Lynch’s next feature will be, but I bet it will stick to the surreal shtick …
Shtick: Witty, foul-mouthed dialogue
Kevin Smith is the classic case of a director who should have stayed with his shtick. I think even his biggest fans will agree we’re not talking about a second Fellini, but at its best Smith’s work is sharp, smart, and hilariously funny.
When does it fail to deliver? When he abandons what made him so popular—witty dialogue. The most decisive example until recently was the sentimental romantic comedy Jersey Girl. It’s predictable, full of clichés, and worst of all—not funny. It was the low point for him as a director (44 percent at RottenTomatoes).
You would think he’d learned his lesson, wouldn’t you? Well, he didn’t. In February 2010, Smith released another shtickless work, his first ever to be written by screenwriters other than himself, Cop Out. The result was a miserable partners-against-crime comedy—completely panned by critics, and a box-office disappointment.
Unfortunately, instead of returning to what he does best, Smith announced that his next film will also be different—a horror film. But some hope remains as we’ve recently seen some horror flicks that were also very funny, such as Zombieland and Shawn of the Dead. We hope Smith will follow that direction.
M. Night Shyamalan
Shtick: Final twist
Shyamalan is perhaps the prototypical shtick director. Not that he was the first one, but he is the most infamous for one specific shtick that he repeats over and over.
He achieved success with his third film, The Sixth Sense. An incredible blockbuster, it was highly acclaimed and nominated for six Oscars. And above all, it featured what became Shyamalan’s trademark: a surprise ending that completely alters our perception of the story (that trademark actually appeared in Shyamalan’s second film as well, but no one remembers it).
Expectations for Shyamalan were sky-high after such a phenomenal early success, but he failed to deliver: His films weren’t as successful as expected at the box office, and became less and less loved by critics, who claimed he was just repeating his shtick. His last two films, Lady in the Water and The Happening, were panned.
The golden boy lost his magic touch. With Airbender, Shyamalan worked for the first time on a script written by someone else. Initial box-office results show a decent reception for the film, but perhaps that has more to do with franchise fans than Shyamalan’s shticks.