Note to Hollywood: Stop Giving it All Away

I’m ready to review the new movie The Proposal. Now keep in mind, I have not seen The Proposal. I don’t even particularly want to see The Proposal. But I feel fully confidant that I could give you an accurate accounting of this film based solely on the two or three trailers I’ve seen.

Let’s give this a shot: Sandra Bullock plays a career-minded businesswoman from another country (I’m guessing Canada, since they didn’t try to give her an accent or anything) who ropes her assistant, Ryan Reynolds, into agreeing to a sham marriage so she doesn’t get deported. As they attempt to convince everyone the marriage is real, they find a genuine love for one another and decide, one way or another, to stay together. Roll credits.

Sure, I’m missing some of the details (Betty White saying things that are shocking and scandalous, but only because they’re coming from the mouth of Betty White), but I’m be willing to lay odds that I nailed the broad strokes. And frankly, that’s a shame. There’s absolutely no reason I should be able to predict the plot of a movie I haven’t seen this easily, but there are two reasons that I can.


There is a lot of formulaic writing in Hollywood these days, but I submit that no subgenre suffers from it as badly as the romantic comedy. I’m secure enough in my manhood to admit that I like a good romcom — a good romcom. But there are so few of them. And they all fit so damn neatly into the same pattern. Boy and girl meet. Wacky hijinks. Boy and girl almost get together. Stupid misunderstanding tears them apart. Wacky hijinks. Boy and girl get together in the last five minutes of the movie. Repeat.

These movies almost never deviate from the pattern. Earlier this week I watched Good Luck Chuck (I know, I know), which actually started with a fairly original premise: the main character is under a curse that causes every woman he’s with to fall in love with the next guy she meets. Okay, that’s clever. But once you got past the premise, the story fell into exactly the same pattern. Think about all the romcoms you’ve seen. How many of them escape this pattern? Very few — and not coincidentally, they’re the best ones.

Love Actually is perhaps my favorite romantic comedy of all time, but it completely throws out the pattern by telling not just one, but almost a dozen separate and intertwined loved stories. Only two of them (prime minister and his assistant; the writer and the housekeeper) come even close to fitting the pattern. The rest are all over the map. One is about a husband who almost cheats on his wife, one disguises a story about a stepfather and his son with two other love stories, one is all about a guy consumed more with lust than love, and in two of the stories, we don’t even get a happy ending. I won’t tell you which two, in case you haven’t seen the movie. But you should, because it’s excellent.

One of the biggest indie hits, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, is a romcom that I believe was so good because it, too, utterly defied the pattern. Most romcoms are all about whether or not the guy and girl will get together at the end. In My Big Fat Greek Wedding, the guy and girl get together at the beginning, and the comedy is more about the collision of cultures than stupid, cliched misunderstandings or any of the other tropes that make most romcoms a total bore.

But they keep making formula comedies, because a lot of moviegoers seem to get mad when you break the formula. Take the movie The Break-Up. While not a great movie, I give it credit for at least being different. But I heard from numerous people who were angry at the film because at the end (spoiler warning!)… they break up. Even when the spoiler is in the title of the movie, filmgoers are so indoctrinated into the formula that they get upset at deviation.

That’s just sad.


The other reason I felt like I saw The Proposal before it even came out comes down to the movie trailers. A trailer, to me, should give you the set-up, the pitch, the hook that makes me decide I want to see a movie. But at least one of the trailers for The Proposal practically waves a banner and announces the imminent romance of Bullock and Reynolds. Sure, I expected it (because of the formula) but that doesn’t mean I want to see the ending of the movie in a trailer.

When the movie What Lies Beneath came out, director Robert Zemeckis was pretty vocally angry at the movie studio for cutting a trailer that basically gave away the movie’s big twist. The studio’s response was that they had market research telling them that moviegoers want to know exactly what they’re going to see before they see it. That’s got to be the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. Don’t misunderstand me, I fully believe that they have research telling them this very thing. I just think that the people they’re researching are incredibly stupid.

I just don’t understand this mindset. If you know the ending of a story, the suspense is gone. All of the excitement, all of the wonder, is drained away. I don’t like a story if it’s predictable for the same reason, so why would I want to spoil it for myself? I know some people who gleefully scour the Internet to know what’s going to happen on next week’s episode of their favorite TV show or in the next installment of their favorite movie series. Whatever. If that’s what you want, more power to you. But as a storyteller, I feel like it’s a slap in the face. The writers, the creators of the story intended it to be told in a certain way. I feel like it’s disrespectful to their story to jump to the last page. The movie Quarantine is another example. It was a pretty decent horror flick — but the terrifying final image in the movie is in the trailer!

I feel like it’s a disservice to myself, as the reader/viewer. With a lot of stories, part of the fun is to match wits with the storyteller — to try to solve the mystery along with the characters, to try to guess what’s going to happen next. The Harry Potter series was driven by the mysteries of the past. I loved reading the books, but most of the enjoyment I got out of the series came from discussing it with other fans as we tried to solve the assorted riddles that J.K. Rowling created. The same goes for the TV show LOST. One of my favorite shows right now, specifically because it has so many mysteries in it. And I want to know the answers to those mysteries desperately, but I want to find them out as they are revealed in the course of the story, not (as is far too often the case) in the ABC promos for the next episode.

So Hollywood, I plead to you. Stop ruining the story before it comes out. And while you’re at it, try to tell me a story I haven’t heard a thousand times before.


12 Responses to “Note to Hollywood: Stop Giving it All Away”

  1. June 20, 2009 at 11:18 am

    I swear, I was just writing about this to another friend on Facebook, who said that she saw it last night. And I said that, without seeing it or reading any reviews, I knew how it ended it. It is a rather common premise, two people dislike each other then, for various reasons, gets into a fake relationship/marriage and end up really falling in love. Not saying it can’t be a good and funny film, just that it’s predictable in that regard, and that a real twist, worthy of M. Night Shymalan, would be if that didn’t happen, and they ended up going their separate ways @ the end.

    I’d forgotten about The Break-Up, I have that one tape. You’re right, that is one where the ending wasn’t typical.

    • June 20, 2009 at 11:21 am

      Indeed, indeed. Even with a common premise, though, there can be room for some originality.

      I kind of have the same problem with sports movies. Even the best ones virtually all come down to the same thing — the underdog (or underdog team) trying to win the big game. Okay, so it’s a sports thing, and it’s the most obvious climax, but I applaud any sports flick I see that succeeds in giving me a conclusion that doesn’t rely on that same thing at the end.

  2. 3 Vincent J. Krejci
    June 20, 2009 at 11:35 am

    I definitely agree with you about the formula. It applies to TV too. I’m a big fan of How I Met Your Mother. And people on the internet are insisting certain characters will end up together despite the fact the first episode said it does not happen.

    I do disagree about the trailers. I agree that trailers should not give away key plot points. But I do think that a large portion of the movie going audience wants to know exactly what they are going to see. The first thing that comes to my mind is Vanilla Sky. I remember when it came out, there was much grumbling about the sci-fi twist at the end. There was no hint of it in the trailer, and many audience members were off put by something they did not expect. It is a sad commentary on the general audience that the cannot enjoy a movie that does not conform to their expectations. And that is why hollywood tends to pander to the lowest common denominator.

    • June 20, 2009 at 11:38 am

      Oh, I agree that a lot of movie-goers WANT to know exactly what they’re going to see. I just think that’s a foolish attitude. 😀

      HIMYM is a great show, by the way, and I know exactly what you mean. The Ted/Robin shippers gotta give it up.

  3. 5 Walt
    June 20, 2009 at 11:43 am

    I saw the movie “Serendipity” with a friend a number of years ago. It certainly fit formula–so much so that I was able to lean over and mention something likely to happen and then not long after, be proven right. I was even accused of having seen the movie prior, though I hadn’t even heard of it/known anything of it prior to the evening we saw it.

  4. June 20, 2009 at 12:22 pm

    It’s all about false pretenses. Hitch would be a classic example. I just watched Confessions of a Shopaholic which has the same basic pretense, with the gender roles reversed. Start of movie: boy meets girl while one of them is pretending to be something they’re not. The two fall in love, the lie is revealed, they get upset, they get over it, and everyone lives happily ever after. This is all it is. Over and over and over again. People may kill me for saying this, but I enjoyed 50 First Dates for not being as formulaic.

  5. June 20, 2009 at 12:37 pm

    Two of my favourite romantic comedies, strangely enough, both star Adam Sandler. The first is PT Anderson’s Punch-Drunk love, the story of an emotionally-imbalanced social outcast (who would have thought Adam Sandler for that?) who, in the course of courting a young lady, runs afoul of the phone-sex line he called earlier. Obviously it’s not terribly formulaic.

    The other was 50 First Dates, which is also fairly unformulaic, although it goes exactly where the premise seems like it will.

    Oh, and High Fidelity. That movie’s just awesome. It’s great when the main thing keeping the guy and girl apart are their own hang-ups.

  6. June 21, 2009 at 10:08 pm

    I agree with your points, but I think you’re expecting too much out of fluff movies. The Proposal is a Sandra Bullock vehicle. It barely qualifies as being a story. People don’t really see romantic comedies to be surprised. They’re looking to see the Hollywood representation of perfect love. They want to see happily ever afters.

    I saw The Proposal this weekend, and it is kind of the perfect example. The premise SUCKS. And the ending is worse. Because in this movie the main characters literally go from utter, irredeemable hatred to mind-boggling love is THREE DAYS. And the audience is expected to buy it. In part, we do. But that is mainly because the movie lives and dies based on Ryan Reynolds comedic chops and the fact that Sandra Bullock looks good naked and has the satanic ability to make you root for her as an underdog no matter what kind of bitch she’s playing. It should be even less forgivable based on the fact that in many ways the movie is just a gender-reversed retread of Two Weeks Notice. But it was enjoyable. It was funny and I laughed.

    And thats the point. You can enjoy a romantic comedy and laugh as long as you don’t think too hard. Because when you begin to tell a real story; when you break away from that formula, you get into the truth about romance. Even true love isn’t perfect. And not every story ends like The Notebook. Most of them end like The Break Up. On paper, Bullock and Reynolds’ characters seem perfect in that opposites attract kind of way. But the reality is: she’s a bitch. She’s damaged goods and that does not make for a good life together. If the story went on, they’d break up in a month tops.

    I’m not saying romance movies can’t strive for more than the hackneyed, will-they, won’t-they, Sex and the City drivel. But when they don’t achieve the standard of art, its because that’s what people really want.

    • June 21, 2009 at 10:42 pm

      I get what you’re saying, Adam, and I agree with a lot of it. But I still feel like a lot of movies — romcoms in particular but movies in general — cater to the lowest common denominator. They give people what they expect because it’s a business and that makes them money. But that’s just not enough for me. Yeah, I can handle something that’s just plain fun once in a while, but most of the time I need more meat.

      • June 22, 2009 at 7:15 am

        Never say the words “I need more meat” to me.

        I get that. But you do have to remember that studios are run by the same assholes who run corporations and our government. They’re not artists… most aren’t really even businessmen. They’re a bunch of pricks who got business degrees and don’t know jack about anything. TO them, it doesn’t matter if the movie is good, as long as they can put asses in the seat.

        Some studios are worse than others. Fox, for instance, thinks they know EVERYTHING about what makes a great movie, and their interference has destroyed more than a few films that could have been great. I think we, as an audience are just lucky to get at least some great films each year.

        Like I said, I’m just glad the movie was funny. Nothing worse that spending ten dollars on a bad chick flick.

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