One of the most pervasive criticisms against movie reviewers is that sometimes it seems like we’re not giving things a fair chance before we see them. Ideally, according to this argument, we should be going into a movie completely free of expectations, to let it stand or fall on its own merits. The argument has a valid point; if we come into it expecting to hate it, we’re more likely to actually do so. It is partly for this reason that I started labeling some movies as entries in my “Morbid Curiosity Files” — because in those cases it was impossible to escape certain negative expectations.
But the simple truth is that, whether we’re reviewers or just plain viewers, we are expected to judge a movie before we’ve seen it. That’s the job of marketing. Every trailer, every television commercial, every movie poster or DVD cover, is designed with one thing and one thing only in mind: To prejudice us in favor of the movie. If we think it’s a good movie before we’ve even seen it, we’re that much more likely to spend our money on it. And since there is this attempt to sway us in the movie’s favor, it is only natural that sometimes those attempts fail, and we become prejudiced against the movie. What’s more, usually that prejudice proves completely justified, as the movie really is that bad.
And so, after that lengthy introduction, we get to the fun part of this article: picking out some of those warning signs that tell us when a film will be bad, before we even watch it. And while I may take a look at other genres in the future, today I’m going to look at comedies. Now, since in many of these cases, the warning signs were indeed enough to keep me away, I’m keeping my prejudices as fair as possible by choosing examples that all have a 25% or lower rating on Rotten Tomatoes — either from critics or the audience (or both). (Usually the critical rating is considerably lower than the audience score; this is mostly because people who aren’t going to like a comedy usually don’t watch it and therefore don’t rate it, but professional critics usually have to sit through every film whether they want to or not.)
These aren’t the only warning signs, of course; just my choices for the top 10. And they’re only warning signs, not guarantees; every so often, there just might be an exception.
#10: From the Makers Of…
This can be phrased in many different ways, depending on just what (or who) the marketing team wants to emphasize. “From the people who brought you…”, or “From the director of…” or “From the producer of…” are all common variations. Sometimes if they want to try to be funny while acknowledging only part of the creative team behind a big hit is present, it’ll be “From one of the guys who brought you….” Whatever the formulation, the purpose is always the same: the marketing team wants you to remember a previous good work of the creative team, and therefore conclude that this film will be as good as that film.
On the surface, it’s not a bad idea; after all, we often pick favorite actors, directors, etc., based on their body of work. Invoking that is not a bad thing. But there are a couple ways this could backfire, where this turns from a good sign to a warning sign. The first, of course, is if you really weren’t all that thrilled by the supposed hit in the first place. The Babymakers is touted as being from the director of Super Troopers and Beerfest, which combined didn’t make as much money as Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo, and while both have strong RT scores from their audiences, neither is well regarded by the critics. If you’re somebody who agreed with the critics on those films, that byline on the poster won’t sell you on The Babymakers. Another warning sign in this case is that it’s skipping over films; Jay Chandrasekhar also directed The Dukes of Hazzard. Since that wasn’t even the cult success that Super Troopers was, the marketing team went back 11 years for his most successful picture, rather than relying entirely on recent films (similar to movies touting Halle Berry as an Oscar winner after Catwoman.)
And even under the best of circumstances, there’s one tiny little bit of doubt that gets planted by this kind of marketing. When the first words out of their mouth is “from the makers of…”, they’re trying to hype the film based on how you felt about a previous film, which is often otherwise unrelated. Personally, I have a lot more confidence in a film when the marketing team tries to sell it to me based on how great this film is, rather than how great some other film is.
#9: Non-Title Title
While the previous point can also be applied to non-comedies, this point is not only comedy-specific, but is also almost entirely limited to a particular type of comedy: the spoof. Epic Movie, Not Another Teen Movie, Date Movie, Superhero Movie… the list, sadly, goes on. While there are earlier examples, the trend was kicked into high gear by 2000’s Scary Movie, and most of the films haven’t managed to match Scary Movie‘s 50/50 approval rating.
There’s a basic problem of creativity at work here. A generic, lazy title suggests a generic, lazy concept for a movie. And by and large, that is what these spoofs are known for delivering. Reviews for these movies almost always wind up hitting the same points: they parody a genre, but do it so shallowly that everything is familiar and predictable, and there’s nothing about the movie itself that is worth exploring. One exception to this is Mel Brooks’ 1976 film, Silent Movie, which is pretty good and reasonably well regarded, but this just goes to show once again that today’s parodists are not Mel Brooks. The impression given with most of these generically-titled films is that the movie doesn’t even have a strong enough plot or sense of humor to suggest its own title, let alone stand on its own two feet. And that’s just pitiful. A related warning sign is when the title actually comes out and says “Farce” or something like it — such as in Larry the Cable Guy’s Delta Farce. If the movie’s title has to remind you it’s a comedy, it’s probably not a very good one.
#8: Too-Topical Trailer Gags
I considered embedding the trailer for The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle here, but decided to be merciful and merely describe the offending incident to you (incidentally, this movie is one of the rare ones where the audience score is markedly lower than the critical one.) Around the 0:47 mark of the first full official trailer for this film, Bullwinkle utters an instantly familiar catch-phrase, but not one of his own: “Whasssuuuup?” Over a decade later, this might seem like a pretty tired joke, and it’s definitely that. But at the time it was right at the peak of Budweiser’s “Whasssuuup?” ad campaign. This seemed to be a trend in the late 90s and early 2000s, but it still turns up now and then. They’ll use references to current humor trends, the occasional political potshot, any number of gags to show that the movie’s sense of humor is up-to-the-minute and timely.
Too timely. The movie might still be in production when you see a teaser, but by the time a full trailer comes about, it’s probably all been shot. They’re in post-production at worst at that stage. And since the movie producers aren’t psychic, they don’t know what the hot trends are going to be right when the movie comes out. So how does the trailer know? Because they’ve dubbed in the jokes over existing scenes and dialogue. Bullwinkle never says “Whasssuuuup?” in the movie (yes, to my dismay, I know first-hand.) That was put in just for the trailer, to make the audience laugh. But that’s what the actual dialogue is supposed to do. Any time you see a gag in a trailer that could only have been made right before the trailer was released, be very wary of the film; the marketing team lacks confidence in the film’s own jokes.
#7: Overly-Specific General Parody
There are two ways you can make an acceptably good parody. You can go for the general approach, parodying an entire genre maybe occasionally riffing on elements from some of the big name pictures, but primarily pushing your own plot line that spoofs genre tropes; this would be the approach Blazing Saddles takes. Or you can take the specific approach, primarily spoofing a particular film; this would be the approach Young Frankenstein takes. But this film? It decides to take a third option. It tries to parody specific things, but it can’t make up its mind what film to specifically parody. It doesn’t want to be a general parody, nor a specific parody, and winds up being a bit of an incoherent mess. Look at the poster for Meet the Spartans; if it wanted to be a 300 parody, that’s fine, but can anybody come up with a reason for Shrek, Ghost Rider, or Transformers to be involved? I think Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer’s answer is “we think it’s funny”. No, it really isn’t. It’s just random, and humor takes a bit more than that. The real reason is that they couldn’t make up their mind what to make fun of, so they threw it all in. And less than a third of the audience liked the result; only 2% of critics approved (and reading the review, it’s a pretty grudging approval.)
#6: Special UNRATED Edition!
Here’s one for the rental and purchase crowds. A comedy that was rated “R” in the theatres now comes to DVD, and the box art makes a big point of how this version is “Unrated!” The raunchier the movie is overall, the bigger the “Unrated!” sign is, and the more likely it’ll either be on a woman’s top, her underwear, or be acting as a censor bar across her breasts. If it’s a particularly large bar, it’ll often have “Too hot for theatres!” or “The version you didn’t see!” written underneath it. In any case, it’s trying to convince you that this version has a significant increase in the number of naked breasts you’ll see in the movie.
Note that it never says this cut is funnier or better. The truth of the matter is that even when the filmmakers are told they have to cut a certain amount of nudity to get an R rating instead of an NC-17, they still have control over what precisely gets cut, and they never have to cut it entirely for an R (though they may have to for lower ratings, but aside from My Boss’s Daughter at right, few films go that route). Between two questionable scenes, if they’re told they only get to keep one, what do you think they’ll keep? They’re going to keep the better scene. Which means that the unrated bonus scene was something they decided wasn’t as good. Then they put it back in for the DVD release, slap that “Unrated!” on it, and hope that your libido shuts down the part of your brain that remembers that Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj was only in theatres for two weeks.
#5: Two Roles, One Actor, Zero Reason
This could just as easily be called the Eddie Murphy rule; I almost used Nutty Professor II: The Klumps for the item image, before realizing that at 26% it just barely exceeded the limits I set. Fortunately, so to speak, I remembered Norbit. But Eddie Murphy has enough examples that I could probably make a top 10 list just of those.
At its heart, this problem is any time one actor plays two (or more) roles in a single film, but there’s no reason for them to be doing so. There are essentially two reasons why one actor should be playing more than one role in a film, and one of them is “It’s Peter Sellers”, which doesn’t apply to very many people. The other is when the characters should look alike, such as when they’re playing a clone or doppelganger or an identical twin. Note that there is no excuse for one actor playing fraternal twins, particularly a brother and sister twin. It can occasionally turn out all right, but by and large it stretches the actor too thin — they need to do double the work of any other actor, and they’re usually not up to it; plus if they have to interact with their own characters, they lose any possibility of believable chemistry, whether friendly, familial or romantic (thanks so much, Murphy, for that thought). And there isn’t a need for it, since they could just as easily cast another actor in the role; if they don’t need to look alike, there is no reason not to use a different actor. It just smacks of an actor’s ego going out of control, especially as this is most common with projects where the actor in question is essentially running the show. And it almost never turns out well.
#4: The Star Disappears Into a Black Hole
So you’ve got a hit on your hands! Great! The studio wants a sequel? Also great! The star wants nothing to do with the sequel? Uh… well, heck, just put a new guy in there! It’ll all work out, right? Nope.
This is another one that can apply to other genres as well, but it seems that when comedies come up against this one they turn out exceptionally bad even by the standards of mediocre films. This is probably because in a comedy, the star is a significant part of what made the film successful to begin with. It’s their comic timing, their delivery that sells the original movie. And without them, it just won’t work as well. This holds true for a lot of remakes and TV adaptations as well, but it’s sequels that get hit especially hard by this. And, for some reason, Jim Carrey movies in particular seem prone to receiving unwanted sequels. Son of the Mask, Dumb and Dumberer, Evan Almighty… you’d think they would have learned after the first couple bombs.
#3: Prosthetic Characters
Black-face, white-face. Cross-dressing. Fat suits. There are any number of ways that an actor can disguise how they look, any number of ways they can make themselves look like an entirely different person. Or, depending on the quality of the make-up job, a not-quite-right homunculus that will haunt your nightmares forever. And in almost all such cases, regardless of the quality of the make-up, these prosthetic characters are weak crutches for comics who have neglected to come up with a real premise for their comedy. Oh, sure, there are the occasional funny examples that sometimes even get critical acclaim; but for every Some Like It Hot or Tootsie, there are five Big Mommas or White Chicks.
Why don’t they just get an actor of the appropriate body type to play the role? Because that’s not the joke. The joke is “Oh my gosh, this black person is playing a white person!” “This man is playing a woman!” “This thin guy is playing a fat guy!” Or, of course, any combination of the above and more. We’ve had comedies about people who fake their races, fake fat people, fake women, fake little people, fake old people, fake children, fake Siamese twins… sooner or later we’ll have fake 8-foot tall people, fake legless people, fake cerebral palsy sufferers, fake iron lung patients… and that will be the whole joke. 115 minutes of “This guy has no legs! Laugh at him!” He will, of course, be a normally-legged individual going undercover for the FBI. For additional humor, the actor in question will also play three other roles.
#2: The Star is an Animal
For some reason, if the focal character of a live-action comedy is an animal, the comedy is almost certainly going to be a stinker. Doesn’t matter whether the animal is live-action themselves or CGI. Doesn’t matter if the animal talks or not — though it’ll probably be much worse if he does. All that matters is that all the promotional material hypes up the animal and not the human stars. This means either the animal is the main character, in which case it’s probably either for kids or seriously mis-aimed, or the marketing team doesn’t have faith in the ability of the human actors to draw an audience. Either way, it’s not looking good. Especially if the promotional team pulls a stunt like they did with Kangaroo Jack and market as a completely different film from what it was; from what I’ve heard, in the actual movie, the eponymous marsupial doesn’t speak, but that’s all you’ll see in the trailers. But whether they play it honestly or not, if the marketing team is relying on a cute animal to sell you on a comedy, instead of the actual humor, chances are the humor is going to be pretty sparse.
#1: Happy Madison Productions
Some of you may have been wondering why I hadn’t used any Happy Madison movie posters for the other bullet points. Well, now you have your answer. I know that all the other points have been regarding general trends in comedies and are not about a specific individual or company, but this is because while there may be some individuals whose work I avoid, it’s usually because they are guilty of one of the above points. In the case of Happy Madison, it just doesn’t seem to matter. These movies sometimes hit the other bullet points, sometimes they breeze by them, but they are always in for a critical thrashing, and they always look as though they deserve it from the promotional material I see.
To date, there have been 28 films released into theatres that have Happy Madison Productions credited as the production company; all are comedies of some form or another. Pictured above, in chronological order, are the films that fit the “25% or lower rating” criteria I gave myself for using posters in this article. You’ll note that there are 20 films — 71% of Happy Madison’s total output as of August, 2012 — that fit that criteria. In fact, of those 20 films, only Bedtime Stories (which was co-produced by Disney) actually reaches the 25% mark. A few are just a touch lower, and many are in the teens. Some are even single digits, and two — Strange Wilderness and Bucky Larson: Born to be a Star — manage to get a goose-egg. Of the eight films that are above 25%, four are still below 33%, meaning a third or less of critics enjoyed them. The remaining four? All below 50%. Happy Madison has never released a film which has met with critical approval.
They’ve had some financial success, however, and the occasional film which has met with audience approval. This is why they’re still going, and is probably why their more recent films seem so much worse — it is possible that Adam Sandler and his friends, achieving success despite the critics, came to be immune to criticism, and so just go with whatever whim captures their fancy. But it’s crumbling down around them; because they haven’t had reason to listen to anybody telling them their films needed improvement, they have gotten increasingly terrible, and the audience is now rejecting them almost as much as the critics. Of their last five films, only two — Just Go With It and That’s My Boy — have audience approval ratings over 60%, and those only barely. Their last genuine financial hit appears to have been Grown Ups, and even that doesn’t quite break an audience rating of 60%. That’s My Boy bombed at the box office. It’s at a point where even the fans of Happy Madison will probably acknowledge they need to turn things around. And what’s up on the horizon for the company, according to IMDb? Here Comes the Boom, starring Kevin James as a teacher turned incompetent prize-fighter; Valet Guys, also starring Kevin James and Kevin Hart, presumably as valet guys; and Grown Ups 2, which is not really surprising, but not really encouraging either.
What do you think? Do you disagree on any of the warning signs? Are there any signs I left off and should have included? What keeps you away from a comedy?