April 6, 2009

Great expectations

No, this post is not about the Dickens novel or any of its adaptations (also I did just see the 1946 David Lean film version). It's about the preconceived notion you have going into a film, and what happens when that is shattered.

This was the subject of some controversy recently between myself and my boyfriend. He claimed that I always cling too tightly to the expectations I have going into a film. To clarify, the expectations I'm referring to are the ones created primarily by the advertising campaign, and have little to do with quality (i.e. "this movie is going to be awesome!"), but rather what the film is going to deliver at a basic level (i.e. "this movie is a raucous comedy" or "this movie is a character-driven drama"). Discrepancies of quality - either being pleasantly surprised by a film or disappointed - happen all the time, but I would say it is rare that a film's promotion sells something completely different.

We had just seen Adventureland, which is the new film from Greg Mottola, director of Superbad. I was expecting something along the lines of Superbad, since that was pretty much how the new film was being sold to me (and on the whole, why should I doubt a trailer?). Instead of being a foul-mouthed, sex-driven outrageous comedy with a heart of gold, however, Adventureland was a mushy coming-of-age romantic drama. Huh?

When I voiced my disappointment, my boyfriend couldn't believe it. He loved the film and said that when it becomes apparent that a movie is branching off radically from what I expected, I should be able to adjust and appreciate it for what it is. I wondered why I was unable to do that.

This made me think back to a couple of times that this has happened to me before - most notably, with Barton Fink and In Bruges. The back of the DVD case for Barton Fink, for reasons unknown, paints the film as a sort of zany Hollywood parody. It is, but it's not. It's also a dark, surreal, and disturbing mystery. Being completely unprepared for this, it left a really bad taste in my mouth. When I revisited it a year or two later, I absolutely loved it. In Bruges is a similar case. Its marketing campaign was insanely baffling in that it depicted a sort of European Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, a comedic Belgian crime caper. That couldn't be further from the truth - while it has a few moments of morbidly dark humor, it's mostly a moody, profound meditation on life and death. Again, that left me feeling really weird afterward because I wasn't ready for it. I haven't seen it again since that, but the more I thought about it the more I realized that it's a really good movie in its own right.

So what went wrong with Adventureland? Was it really just this discrepancy?

The more I thought about it, the more I could think of reasons it didn't work as a film - structurally, character-wise, etc. - whereas after seeing Barton Fink and In Bruges I kept coming up with things that did work. But also, I couldn't shake the feeling that I would have preferred to have seen the film the trailer was selling. The rich environment of suburban teen malaise in a 1980s theme park seemed like a potential goldmine for the kind of humor seen in Superbad, but what actually unfolded just came off as watered down and neutered. With Barton Fink and In Bruges, I didn't really find myself actually longing for what I had been promised, just readjusting.

So maybe expectations do matter. But I can move past them - unless the film never lives up to its trailer or campaign in quality regardless of what direction it takes, and then it just merges with general disappointment.

What do you think? How do expectations of genre, quality or anything else figure into your moviegoing experiences?


DGB said...

Expectations totally play into a viewing of a film. Think about movies like Blair Witch or Borat, which had huge buzz. Everyone I know who saw them after they had been declared the greatest movies ever was disappointed.

As for Adventureland, I knew what I was getting into with that one. My only real problem was the total lack of charisma from Kristen Stewart. Is it me or does she look bored in every movie she's in?

Alex said...

This kind of happened with me and my wife. She wasn't as thrilled by Adventureland. I loved it and was actually glad that it wasn't Superbad set in the 80s. Superbad was a nod to comedies of the 80s and did it better than most of them, so to do a movie set in the 80s that's a nod to a movie that was a nod to movies of the 80s would be redundant on several levels.

But as far as expectations go, I completely understand. When I saw The Life Aquatic for the first time, I was expecting something different from what I got and it didn't sit right with me. Seeing it a second time knowing what to expect, I was able to appreciate it for what it was. Same happened for me with a couple of other movies - The Limey, Jackie Brown, a few others. Bottom line: if you still care, give Adventureland another shot eventually.

And yes, Kristen Stewart does appear to be bored in everything.