Saturday, January 3, 2004

Trailer Trash

I’ve been to see two movies during my visit here with my folks: Return of the King (see my review here) and Something’s Gotta Give (not bad for a 2003 version of a 1930’s screwball comedy). But before the movie started, we had to sit through endless trailers – what they used to call Previews of Coming Attractions.

A wise theatre manager would tailor his trailers to suit the audience that is sitting and waiting for the film to begin; that is, you don’t show a promo for a slasher or a teen-age sex romp to an audience that came to see Driving Miss Daisy, and vice versa; you don’t show a trailer for The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood before 2 Fast and 2 Furious. Well, today we got a trailer for Calendar Girls, a sort of feminist version of The Full Monty, but we also got one for a slasher/stalker/psycho flick called Taking Lives and yet another Adam Sandler alleged comedy, 50 First Dates. You could hear the decidedly middle-aged audience groan.

That brings me to another point. It used to be that trailers made you want to see the film being previewed. But now the trailers are so long and involved that you might as well not bother with the movie itself. Having seen the trailer for Taking Lives, I now know pretty much what happens: psycho kid grows up, assumes a lot of other people’s identities after killing them, stalks a young woman, and an edgy, hip young cop pursues the psycho while falling for the woman and rescuing her. At the end of the trailer there’s a shot of the young woman walking down a dark alley. Gee, I wonder what happens next. I forget who’s in the cast except Kiefer Sutherland (a buck says he’s the psycho – that’s his kind of role). Even the trailer for Calendar Girls gave away much of the story. In an effort to draw in the audience, they basically revealed (poor choice of words) the plot – older women in conservative Yorkshire put out a girlie calendar featuring themselves in various stages of undress – and in doing so, gave away the best lines of the film so that when you finally see them, they’re old news. Trailers should be teasers, not Cliff’s Notes.

I suppose it can’t be helped. With rare exceptions, films have gotten to be so formulaic that all you have to do is see the trailer and you know what you’re in for. I blame Tom Cruise for that. When he hit the big time back in the 1980’s, he did the same movie over and over again: a brash young pilot/race car driver/bartender/pool shark tries to take on the world under the tutelage of an older and wiser mentor, faces steep odds and a tough learning curve, and meets a hot babe who instantly hates him but ends up sleeping with him. In the final reel he faces The Ulitmate Test, wins against his nemesis (some equally studly B-list actor with a $1,000 haircut), learns his lesson about life, and takes off with the girl, usually to the tune of a Top 40 hit. (Oh, and don’t forget the buddy who generates macho camaraderie and then gets killed. Always good for the revenge motive.) This kind of formula filmmaking worked for a lot of stars, each with their own plotline; Robin Williams as the quirky but compassionate underdog (Dead Poets Society, Awakenings, Patch Adams, Good Will Hunting), Jim Carrery as an over-the-top buffoon who would be in Bellevue in real life, Adam Sandler as a clueless dolt who stumbles into nobility, and now comes the next generation of straight-from-TV stars such as Ashton Kutcher and Josh Duhamel. God help us.

There are films that transcend trailers. The Lord of the Rings series needed no introduction for millions of fans; they bootlegged the trailers only to see what Peter Jackson had done to the story. And there are some films whose trailers actually made you think you were going to get something different – Chicago is a case in point. None of the trailer footage shows anything that might let the potential audience who were unaware of the show’s history know that they’re going to see a Broadway musical.

Some films don’t really need trailers – it seems like they just go through the motions, but they also draw us in. Those are the films that defy formula and give us plots that are if not realistic at least thematically honest. And they’re being made by people who really know what it is to tell a story with interesting – if not likeable – characters. Think of the Farrelly brothers (There’s Something About Mary, Outside Providence), the Coen brothers (Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, Fargo, The Big Lebowski, O Brother, Where Art Thou), and Quentin Tarrantino (Pulp Fiction). I remember the trailers from all those films. It made me want to see them, not feel as if I just had.