I wasn’t really that drawn in by the trailers for this weekend’s Adventureland. It looked like one of the many late teen/early twenty-something sex comedies that usually suck and all kinda run together after awhile. Nothing in the trailer was particularly funny, although it seemed as if it was trying really hard to be. It was chock full of pseudo-laughs drawn from goofy random moments. And to add to that, it made absolutely certain that you knew that it was “from the director of Superbad,” even going so far as to preserve the font used for that film’s promotional material, so that it catches the eye and there’s no confusion as to which Superbad they’re talking about. It makes sense. Being associated with Superbad is definitely something I’d want people to know, as it’s a terrific example of when late teen/early twenty-something sex comedies are actually good and successful.
And while Adventureland covers similar territory as Superbad, it’s really not the film you think you’re buying a ticket for based on that selling point. No, friends, it’s actually much better! It’s currently enjoying a staggering 88% on RottenTomatoes, and I think I’m okay with that. It has that indie-dramedy Garden State kind of feel to it (only it’s way more honest and compelling, and way less up its own ass than Garden State). While it’s a serious and perceptive film about budding love, youth, and all their complications, it is reasonably funny, but in a nostalgic real-life sort of way. Jokes in the trailer that fell flat for me were far funnier in the context of the movie, thanks to Greg Mottola’s sensitive direction and the frankly stellar performances by all involved.
So why make such a trailer? I get wanting to sell it as something else that was really successful and not totally a horse of a different color, but when your film isn’t the dopey raunchy comedy that people expected (and wanted), then word-of-mouth will get around and you’ll see some pretty hefty box-office drop-off after the film’s first weekend. Kinda like Watchmen. And this is far from the first time that this has happened and it won’t be the last. Here are five more examples of times when Hollywood was ashamed of its movies.
1. Bridge to Terabithia
To watch the trailer for this Walt Disney/Walden Media family picture, you’d think it was an epic modern-day fantasy yarn where two mischevious kids stumble across a magical land of fairies and tree-monsters just beyond their own backyards. We watch these kids revel in those such discoveries as font sprinkled in fairy dust tells us “Just across the stream…something incredible…is waiting to be found.” And then cue the majestic voice-over guy who says “This winter, when you go looking for adventure, be prepared to find more than you ever imagined.” As someone who read the book as a kid, I was flustered and confused by this trailer and feared they were going the wrong way entirely with the material. But, I was wrong. Nay, the trailer was wrong. It’s a wholesome and touching little film about the friendship shared by the two young leads. The imagination-land that they create in the woods is merely their way of dealing with the rough patches of childhood and takes up all of fifteen or twenty minutes of the movie. Like the trailer for Adventureland, this one latches onto something that holds a totally different meaning in the final movie, dumbs it down, and uses it as a selling point for the whole thing. I can’t imagine what unsuspecting parents and kids must have thought when they went to the film and saw, not only, that there was little fantasy involved but that (SPOILER!) the little girl dies. It’s a great story and a tearjerker to end all tearjerkers, but you just wouldn’t know that from that damn trailer.
Geez, talk about a movie that was marketed all wrong! The trailer starts off with creepy music and occasional loud percussion beats to accent something that’s supposed to be omnious and evil. We watch as Ashley Judd gets drawn to Michael Shannon (and the music just screams “they think they’re ok…but they’re wrong!!”). And then the voice-over gets real throaty and demon-like, telling us “They live in your blood,” while we see close up shots of people’s skin and some microscope-views of blood flowing through your veins, followed by an exchange between Judd and Shannon: “What is that?” “It’s a bug.” and pretty soon “This place is crawling with these things.” Poor Ashley and Michael start to get nuttier and nuttier, tearing apart their flesh and resorting to maddening violence and mayhem. And it’s during this rapidlyly-cut montage of loud maniacal music growing more loud and maniacal, that the V.O. takes time to mention (not unlike the Adventureland trailer) that the film is from the director of The Exorcist, and even reads off a quote from the Chicago Tribune, calling it “one of the most disturbing horror movies imaginable.” And while I can’t exactly say that I disagree with that quote, the finished movie here is worlds different from the movie they advertise in this trailer. It’s a very quiet, dialogue-driven film, based on a stage-play. At no point in this film are we expected to think that the bugs are anything more than the psychotic delusions of an escaped mental patient (Shannon) and the sad, lonely woman (Judd) who has chosen to believe him. It’s a character-based black-as-hell comedy about paranoia elevated to its most intense extremes. That’s not to say it’s not incredibly disturbing. If you have the patience for it, the finished product is severe enough to jostle just about anyone. But to label it as straight “the-insects-are-coming-for-us” horror is just plain wrong! And I also take issue with using “from the director of The Exorcist” to label William Friedkin as a horror director. Hell, even that movie wasn’t a straight fright flick! It was about something larger and the horror came from within it–and Bug is much the same way.
3. The Exorcism of Emily Rose
The trailer for 2005′s The Exorcism of Emily Rose is actually a pretty good and interesting trailer for a horror movie. But what the final product is, is even more interesting. The film is about a priest (Tom Wilkinson) on trial for the murder of a girl who died during an exorcism. The trailer makes it look more like this fact is the jumping off point for a horror film that not only detail the events of the exorcism (which the movie does), but it makes many a subtle implication that the horror isn’t over after that. With the music and fast cutting and constant display of eerie ominous visions, the trailer gives off the impression that this film is straight horror all the way. (It even uses the ol’ “Based on a true story” tag that I hate so much to get people’s blood to curdle a little more.) But when you see that actual movie, it’s really more of a courtroom drama and all of the creepy visions that we saw were from the film’s flashback scenes detailing the alleged possession and exorcism of the titular character, Emily Rose. And perhaps this was a major folly of the film itself. With such a straight-edged courtroom focus most of the time, the flashback scenes, which are played up to extreme levels of supernatural horror, seem like they were awkwardly shoved in there so that they would have something cool-looking to put in the trailer. The title, too, implies a film more in the vein of paranormal macabre. I don’t really know why they chose to go this route. Exorcist: The Beginning was released a year prior with pretty disappointing results and everyone knows that Americans love a good courtroom drama. The film was ultimately pretty successful anyway, pulling in $75 million domestically, more than tripling its $20 million budget.
4. Man of the Year
This looked like something that might–and I stress might–be good. I like the premise, anyway. Robin Williams plays a TV host for a politically-themed comedic talk show, sort of a Jon Stewart/Bill Maher type. When his adoring audience suggests that he run for president to help right the wrongs he’s always poking fun at, he decides to go for it. And wouldn’t you know it? He wins! The trailer for this film plays it up like the political satire that it should have been (except that it doesn’t really look like a good version of that movie). Williams has some good one-liners including “I did not have sex with that woman…I wanted to…,” but the trailer is consistently goofy and naive and it just looks like a white-people rehash of Head of State. And then you actually see the movie and you’re dealing with something else entirely–and it’s even worse! Director Barry Levinson’s film is more in the vein of a drama, sometimes a little funny, but always standing at a distance from the comedy and even from Williams, who feels more like a side character. And all hell breaks loose when eventually it winds up actually being kind of a thriller. The main problem with the movie is that Levinson, who did satire so well with Wag the Dog, seems to have no recollection of the term here. It feels like halfway through he thought to himelf “Wait, wait, wait! This would never happen, that’s ridiculous!” and spent the rest of the movie awkwardly borrowing from every genre he could think of to try and rationalize things that would’ve been best left unrationalized. Ultimately the film was sold as something that it totally wasn’t. I’m guessing this was because the studio looked at the ugly clusterfuck that was Man of the Year and had no idea how one would go about marketing a film that gave them entirely too many options.
5. Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
There were a few trailers out for this one and all of them reveled in showing the ever-popular Johnny Depp looking dark and brooding and slashing open people’s throats with a razor. What they failed to accent, however, was the fact that Depp would be singing at the same time. I can only recall one of the trailers for this movie that showed any singing whatsoever and it was awkwardly shoved in the middle of the trailer, as if to say “ohbythewayitsamusical” and get on with key selling points like Johnny Depp and throat-slashing. I imagine it was quite a shock for many poor unfortunate males clinging desperately to their precious masculinity, when they showed up at this “killin’-people” movie only to see Depp busting out in song like a goddamn pansy. Poor guys. I guess Tim Burton pulled a fast one on ‘em. To watch the movie, it’s surprising that they could fashion a coherent trailer for the film with minimal or no singing, as the whole thing is about 80% song. Obviously there’s a lot of dependence on the voice-over guy for exposition and since there isn’t any dancing, they have a lot of sans-audio shots to choose from to cut together in montage as the instrumental score plays overtop. As a result, they thankfully don’t have to sell the film as if it were Mamma Mia or Hairspray. This is another film which I guess is a tough sell. Because most fans of musicals have little desire to watch blood being spilled from the throats of unsuspecting Londoners and most fans of blood being spilled from the throats of unsuspecting Londoners have little desire to watch musicals. Seeing as, conceptually, this film may have been doomed from the start, the trailers chose the only path they could think of: Johnny Depp.
It’s a shame that good movies (except Man of the Year) need to be sold to the American public in their most dumbed-down and misleadingly accessible forms. It’s a shame that people seem to automatically classify something that they’ve never seen before as “weird” and shun it. It’s a shame that no one has any taste, vision, imagination, or patience for good storytelling anymore. Adventureland was a very good little movie. Not perfect, but very good. And because the majority of American audiences don’t like good movies (and because marketing execs know that), the people who shouldn’t see it will walk out disappointed, while the people who should won’t even walk in. However, if misleading trailers can still be made for films that might not be so easy to market to the masses, thus allowing these movies to continue being made, then…well…I guess I’m okay with that. I’ll just have to see everything, I guess. But I’m not seeing I Love You, Beth Cooper.