Capitalism loves to impose rules on product, because if you can figure out why something sells, you can reproduce its success. This axiom applies to the film industry in myriad ways, including standard narrative patterns based around the arc of a protagonist - as anyone in Hollywood will tell you, a character should become a better or worse version of his or herself over the course of a film. The former is a positive arc, the latter, a negative arc. This primarily satisfying story pattern has kept audiences coming back year after year, no matter how cliché it becomes. If you're an astute cinephile, you've surely noticed countless movies where the hero doesn't grow. And maybe you've also noticed that a lot of films where the hero stays the same are made by great filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Akira Kurosawa, Federico Fellini, or the Coen Brothers.
So what gives? Are good movies with no character development (at least not on the part of the protagonist) an aberration? Or does their existence expose the inherent fallacy of film being, fundamentally, a narrative medium begging for character growth? Is there something wrong with static film heroes, or are these characters drawn by filmmakers skilled enough to disregard rules and still come away with a fantastic product? What is a hero, really? Is the protagonist of every film necessarily heroic?
Despite common wisdom, not every movie is a journey designed to teach its characters and audience important life lessons. Character studies such as The Wolf of Wall Street, for instance, are more interested in exploring the inherently unchangeable nature of each person's core personality. You are who you are, for better or worse, the film seems to tell its audience. Other films without character development, such as Ferris Bueller's Day Off or The Big Lebowski, are more interested in how characters react to circumstances beyond their control than they are in moralizing. Have a favorite movie with no arc you don't see here? Leave a note in the comments section below.
Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) is a simple man who lives in complex times. If Forrest grew or arced, it would run counter to the theme of the film. The movie mines lot of comedy from Forrest finding his way into great wealth and the company of famous figures, but there's also a lot of heart in the message that someone so good-natured and simple succeeds in a violent, corrupt world, despite his naivety.
Ferris Bueller's Day Off is one of the all-time great teen movies, despite the fact that Ferris (Matthew Broderick) remains the same unrepentant rule-breaker when he gets home from his epic day of playing hooky as he was when he woke up that morning. Though Ferris is the central character, his best friend Cameron (Alan Ruck) goes through a far more traditional arc, gaining courage to stand up to his controlling father by the end of the film.
Writer-director John Hughes made a brilliant move having Cameron undergo growth; it allows the audience to enjoy Ferris's consequence-free hijinks while getting emotional satisfaction from the movie.
From the very beginning of The Wolf of Wall Street, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) is consumed by his desire to be wealthy. At the end of the film, he remains just as obsessed with wealth, and is only given a small slap on the wrist for his greed. You might expect a movie about out-of-control brokers made not too long after a financial crises to be a cautionary tale against greed and how it destroys.
Not so much. Wolf is based on a real person who is totally unapologetic about what he did and why he did it, and Martin Scorsese isn't one to romanticize human nature or attempt to impart trivial moral messages. The combination proved the perfect opportunity for a film about America, greed, capitalism, deregulated markets, narcissism, hedonism, and the pursuit of wealth at all costs.
At the beginning of The Big Lewboski, The Dude (Jeff Bridges) is a laid back stoner who likes to bowl and drink White Russians. At the end of The Big Lebowski, he's pretty much the same. "The Dude abides," after all.
The greatness of The Big Lebowksi is inextricable from its lack of character grown and arc. The Dude gets caught up in a case of mistaken identity and faked kidnapping plot, and ends up on the wrong side of German nihilists. In the end, none of it really matters. Life goes on.