Every once in awhile, a movie comes out that the studios just don’t know what to do with. It’s not a romcom, it’s not an action movie, it’s not a bromance farce, it’s . . . different. It’s like they say: movies are cats, plays are dogs. That is: all movies are really pretty much alike, like cats are–all about the same size, all about the same level of crotchety independence. But dogs, man, a ‘dog’ can be anything from some yappy tiny critter small enough to hold in your hand, to some super friendly monster the size of a bear.
And Hollywood complicates matters by making the same four movies over and over again. So when they do something genuinely different, the marketing department seems totally lost at sea.
Take, for example, The Break-up (2006). It’s terrific, this sadly human naturalist examination of a nice young couple and the tensions and pressures and hurt feelings and misunderstandings and pent-up resentments that lead them to break things off. Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Anniston, both of them great. It’s also funny, but it’s dark humor. But it’s real and smart and sad; it’s a genuinely great movie. I used to use it in classes, to teach modern naturalism.
Thing is, I know people who swear it’s the worst movie they’ve ever seen ever in their lives. Because the movie was advertised as a romantic comedy. What happened, I’m sure of it, is people went to what they thought would be a fun date-night movie, a Jennifer Anniston rom-com. Instead they got this sad, depressing thing. It wasn’t the charming, our-girl-Jen finds Troo Luv movie the trailer suggested it would be. Expectations are important–the experience of seeing a movie doesn’t begin with the opening credits. It begins way earlier, perhaps with the decision to see that movie instead of all the other movies you could see. And when you’ve set your palate for ‘ice cream,’ you react badly to that serving of brussels sprouts.
Same dynamic for The Grey. The premise: six oil workers survive a plane crash in the wilds of Alaska, only to be attacked by wolves. It’s about their fight for survival. Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney star, along with several unknowns, all of them great. It’s a terrific, man-vs.-nature picture, very Stephen Crane. But it’s more than that–it’s a wonderful philosophical film, a film that asks, quietly and without much fuss, questions about God and life and the fight for survival and what that means theologically. You’d miss that from the trailer. It looks like a horror film, a scary action film. I found watching it to be a completely shattering experience, as did Roger Ebert. But you’d never know how great this movie was from the marketing. Or rather, you’d never know what kind of great movie it is.
Third film: John Carter. The conventional wisdom had already been well-established before the film was ever released. It was a disaster, a catastrophe in the making. Andrew Stanton, the director, was in way over his head. Sure, he’d directed Wall-E and Finding Nemo; but those were Pixar films–he couldn’t do a live-action big budget blockbuster. It cost too much and it wasn’t any good. It was stupid. And they’d gotten this kid from Friday Night Lights, Taylor Kitsch, to star in it, and boy was he miscast.
Well, I thought it was great fun. I enjoyed it thoroughly. It was kind of silly, to be sure–it was true-ish to its source, and Edgar Rice Burroughs was a pulp writer. But it was exciting, it looked great, the action scenes were well-staged, and Kitsch was a terrific leading man, very charismatic and charming. It wasn’t quite as good as The Avengers, but it was certainly every bit as entertaining as all the other summer action movies released in the last year.
When we go to the movies, we always go early, because my wife and I love watching the trailers. And you can usually tell–we knew That’s My Boy was going to be terrible (and that we weren’t going to go see it) based on the trailers, and we knew that Inception was going to be awesome (and that we were going to see it). But sometimes movies confound our expectations in really good ways. You feel particularly well-rewarded when that happens.