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.
REASON #1: THE FORMULA
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.
REASON #2: THE TRAILER
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.