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Originally published at Crap and Garbage in Violent Opposition.   Adapted and edited for inclusion here.

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In the past few weeks, I've seen Are We There Yet, Hitch and The Pacifier.  Interestingly enough, I didn't pay for any of these screenings, but that's neither here nor there.

No, what most struck me about these films is how every effort seemed taken to remove any element that might possibly surprise an audience. Anything that might be unexpected was gone, at least in terms of the main narrative thrust.  Maybe I see too many movies, but given the premise for each, and a brief introduction to the characters, I knew exactly what all the major plot points and turns would be.  Exactly.  There were a few things I expected in each that didn't turn up, but that was more like a filing down of rough edges than any kind of attempt to be different.  Watching these movies, after the opening premise was established, became almost pointless then.

Now, you might be thinking that in the case of Are We There Yet and The Pacifier, that this is because these films are primarily aimed at children, and children (presumably) don't like surprises. Well, I don't particularly buy that. I liked surprises when I was a kid; I thought predictability was pretty boring. I think kids enjoy surprises; I don't think anyone really looks forward to complete predictability in their entertainment choices.

Perhaps the parents are the ones who want predictability--they want to stick the video in the player and not have to worry about what they're exposing their kids to. I can sympathize with that viewpoint. I don't especially agree with it--I think it's best to watch the films along with your kids, rather than use the tube as a babysitter (or pacifier)--but I can see the usefulness there.

But where does that leave Hitch? There's very little that parents would find offensive here (or kids would find interesting either--it's a romantic comedy after all). It's unlikely that parents would choose to rent this for their kids.  Kids might want to see it, because it's a comedy and it stars Will Smith, but you can say that about lots of films that aren't totally predictable.

Is it because we want our romantic comedies to be without surprise?  Is the idea of love, of engaging another human being in romance, so daunting that we yearn for a smooth predictable road, rather than a bumpy, unpaved trek through the wilderness?  Is this kind of film comforting to people who are facing adult relationships?

If that's the case, I have to wonder if it isn't doing more harm than good by raising unrealistic expectations.  True, the ultimate message of Hitch is to have self-confidence and be yourself, but there's also the message that dripping mustard on yourself is somehow endearing. (Trust me on this--it isn't.)  And yes, there was the (very expected) misunderstanding that temporarily disunited our screen couples, followed by the (very expected) rapprochement.  These things go back to the Astaire-Rogers films, and were pretty creaky back then, too.  But you can't say these were actual obstacles to be overcome by our screen couples, through confrontation and examination.   They were more like delays.   Like having to wait on the freeway until the construction workers wave you through, your destination hasn't changed at all.

What was more interesting was that in these three cases, the movies didn't feel like movies.  They felt like promotional films for the actors, the kind of things an agent would show to a producer. "Here's how Vin Diesel, action star, can be versatile and do comedy. Hire him for your next film!"

Let me say that there were things about all three films that were enjoyable.   They were well-paced, the stars were agreeable, the jokes were funny, and it was clear that everyone involved was trying to make a nice, professional product.   I had a pleasant time watching them.   I guess that's nice in the same way that it is comforting to eat at McDonalds--you know exactly what you're going to get, no matter which McDonalds you go to, and to be honest it also tastes pretty good too.   But you can't eat there all the time.   (There was a movie about that.)

All three films were successful at the box office.   So I wonder what's going to happen to our comedies in coming years.  Since the films were successes, someone out there is finding more to like in them than I am.   And since there aren't a whole bunch of people like me (though I saw the films too), and Hollywood being what it is, you know there are going to more films just like these.   Just think of all the action film stars out there, who aren't getting any younger, and who'd love to appear in a successful family comedy.  (Steven Seagal as a pediatrician!   The jokes just write themselves, literally.)   I suppose, by filing off the rough edges, you can appeal to far more people.   Some pop music is like that as well; it's a pleasant noise that (for me) passes through the ears without engaging anything.   It's not offensive or boring, it's just kind of there.   If you pay attention at all, it's kind of nice--if you pay attention.  If not, you're not really missing anything.  All the elements have been assembled, and skillfully so; the work just lacks a compelling reason for existing.

Art needs, I think, some jarring elements in it that engage the senses and thus, the imagination. I recall an interview with John Lennon, where he talked about the genesis of the song "I Want to Hold Your Hand." He sang the first line, and Paul McCartney responded with the riff that makes the song identifiable. "Do that again!" Lennon said. He knew the value of the unexpected, of the next unknown step that turned noise into song.

That's the difference between a song and a alarm siren. The former is trying to start a conversation, the latter is just an undifferentiated warning.

So it is with these three comedies from 2005. What the warning might be, I don't know.

July 26, 2005

 

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