Summer Movies: Happy Endings?

When was the last time you walked out of a movie theater and thought: Wow, what a great ending! It's an all-too-rare experience. Hollywood movies are expert at starting with a bang, but by the final reel, inspiration is often replaced by rote —or the smell of fear, as the corporate suits strong-arm their filmmakers to come up with a socko finale that desperately tries to please everyone but ultimately satisfies no one. Now that the summer season is (almost) here, along with the usual collection of sequels, comedies, converted TV shows and special-effects derbies, we can expect a deluge of happy endings—you don't build franchises on bleak conclusions. The very notion of a franchise film, however, almost guarantees that its ending be less than fully satisfying. If it were, why would we want to come back for more?

This summer we have, among others, the further adventures of Batman in "The Dark Knight," the darkest of the superhero series; another "Mummy," and a new stab at "The Incredible Hulk," which movie audiences rejected on the first go-round. You can bet Paramount has built into the ending of its latest franchise hopeful, "Iron Man," the promise of future mayhem. What kind of closure could we expect from all the reconstructed TV shows ("Get Smart," "Sex and the City," another "X-Files") that were designed in the first place to go on and on, ad infinitum?

Will any of these upbeat finales, like the much-anticipated return of Indiana Jones, fill us with real joy—the way that rousing rock-and-roll finale of the original "Shrek" left us with a big childlike grin on our faces? Constructing these tentpole extravaganzas, the studios often think that throwing millions of dollars of special effects in our faces is a reasonable substitute for a dramatically coherent ending, as if the sheer noise and spectacle will convince us we're having a thumping good time. You needed an air-traffic controller to sort out all the colliding flying heroes and villains in the overstuffed finale of "Spider-Man 3." Let's not even talk about that interminable 30-minute fight scene near the end of the last "Pirates of the Caribbean," a fight in which nothing was at stake because everybody was already dead—including, apparently, the screenwriters.

Special effects have become the crutch of lazy dramatists, and they've probably damaged more endings than they've helped. When it's applied like too much ketchup, it can ruin the perfectly good taste of the meat. "Enchanted" was purring along just fine until someone decided it needed a big, tacky CGI dragon to liven up the climax—a jarring shift of tone that threatened to undo the movie's genuine enchantment. The hard thing about endings is that there's one way to do it absolutely right, and so many ways to go wrong. Among the deadliest of sins is the climax that betrays everything the movie has been about, such as the vigilante conclusion of last year's "The Brave One." Whatever moral complexities the movie had went up in smoke in the last 15 minutes, which turned Jodie Foster into Charles Bronson and an ambiguous Neil Jordan movie into a Joel Silver crowd-pleaser that, fittingly, failed to attract any crowds.

A different kind of disappointment comes from ambitious films that develop last-minute cold feet. "Charlie Wilson's War," a movie scared of its own political shadow, was so determined to end on an up beat, it turned a tale about blowback into a fable of personal triumph. Mike Nichols is in good company. Steven Spielberg's entire dazzling career has been afflicted with chronic bouts of climactic cold feet-itis: the sentimental coda he tacked onto "Saving Private Ryan," the hackneyed whodunit ending that marred "Minority Report," that little extra tug on the heartstrings when Oskar Schindler breaks down at the conclusion of the amazing "Schindler's List," the disappointingly tidy family reunion that wrapped up the tough, apocalyptic "War of the Worlds." The final acts of many Spielberg movies can be read as an allegory of the struggle between art and commerce, a struggle the director has been waging with himself from movie to movie.

Hollywood has convinced itself, against considerable evidence, that audiences insist on happy endings. How, then, to account for two of the most popular movies ever: "Titanic" and "Gone With the Wind," and, of course, the "Godfather" movies? Frankly, my dear, we don't give a damn if the ending is happy or sad, as long as it's right. Great endings come in many forms. There are movies that have great last lines: look no further than "Nobody's perfect" from "Some Like It Hot." It was a classic gag line, yes, and a comic philosophy to boot. There are movies that have indelible last shots, like that long (wordless) walk that Alida Valli takes past Joseph Cotten at the end of "The Third Man," the camera never moving as she walks away from the burial of her lover, brushing off Cotten's romantic illusions without a glance. It's a shot that's echoed through movie history: a few years ago I was startled to see this same iconic walk duplicated—as a homage, not a rip-off —at the end of a delightful movie from the Philippines called "The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros," with a 12-year-old cross-dressing, gay Filipino boy stepping into Valli's shoes. Similarly, the witty ending of Ernst Lubitsch's flawless 1932 comedy about jewel thieves, "Trouble in Paradise"—in which lovers Miriam Hopkins and Herbert Marshall jauntily pickpocket each other in the back of a car at the fade-out—was snappily re-enacted 50 years later at the end of Walter Hill's "48 Hrs.," only this time it was Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte pulling the fast one on each other. Both times, it worked like a charm.

Twist endings are in a special category: like walking a wire without a net, they run the risk of total disaster. But when they work—as "The Sixth Sense" did, spectacularly—they make you rewind the entire movie in your mind, and want to see it again. M. Night Shyamalan, a victim of his own success, has been trying to duplicate this frisson, with diminishing returns, ever since. Twist endings appeal to the child in us: I can remember the pleasure my 11-year-old self took in the fake-out at the end of Billy Wilder's "Witness for the Prosecution," when the true identity of the murderer was revealed, a sleight of hand not unlike the shock of the Keyser Soze revelation in "The Usual Suspects."

Sometimes it's not a plot twist that catches you by surprise, but a wallop of emotion that sneaks up on you from left field. I'm thinking of the wrenching coda that caps Alexander Payne's "About Schmidt": Jack Nicholson's gruff Omaha widower writing a letter to accompany his charity donation to a child in Africa he's never met. It's not an ending you could have possibly seen coming, yet, like all memorable endings, it feels inevitable. It's a metaphor that perfectly illuminates the emotional awakening our hero has undergone. So many of the most beloved endings in movies leave us daubing our eyes in grief, from "Brief Encounter" to the magnificent kitsch of "Now, Voyager" ("Why reach for the moon when we have the stars?") to the devastating image of the two worn cowboy shirts on the one closet hanger in "Brokeback Mountain."

Stanley Kubrick knew a thing or two about endings: can anybody forget the exploding mushroom clouds at the closing of "Dr. Strangelove," the apocalypse played to the tune of the nostalgic '40s ballad "We'll Meet Again"? And of course the mystical and mystifying conclusion to "2001: A Space Odyssey," an image of cosmic rebirth that has been parsed and probed for decades. There's much to be said for a conclusion that leaves us with a question, not an answer. The lack of closure in a brain-tease like Michael Haneke's "Caché" (not to mention the brilliantly frustrating blackout that ended HBO's "The Sopranos") makes it impossible to stop thinking about what you've just seen. The right riddle ending extends the life of the movie far beyond its running time.

When someone does come up with an original ending, everyone apes it. Brian De Palma faked us out, and freaked us out, at the end of "Carrie" with that final, unexpected jolt from the beyond the grave—you thought the movie was over, but it wasn't. The trick was so inspired, it was immediately imitated by every horror movie, until it curdled into an annoying cliché. Likewise, the freeze frame on the face of Jean-Pierre Léaud at the end of François Truffaut's great movie about adolescence, "The 400 Blows," started a trend that lasted decades.

My own favorite recent romantic happy ending comes at the end of Richard Linklater's superb talkathon "Before Sunset," in a scene between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, two former lovers who meet again after a life-changing separation. The screen goes blank a moment before we expect it to—before the clinch—on a thrilling note of suspended romantic expectation so artfully timed it takes your breath away. Far more common, alas, is the egregious happy ending in which the lovers declare their passion for each other in a public place, surrounded by strangers who burst into wild applause as they kiss. Martin Scorsese may have been the last director to get away with this (just barely) in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" in 1974, but it has become a self-congratulatory staple of some of the worst movies in recent memory ("The Majestic" and "Trust the Man," to name two you probably had the good fortune to miss) and even some not-so-bad romantic comedies such as "Love Actually." Earlier this year it reared its inane head in "27 Dresses." Is it too much to hope that not a single summer movie this year will feature this shameless spectacle at its climax? That would be a very happy ending indeed.