[4 February 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It used to be a yearly tradition. For fans of the NFL’s annual love fest, a glorious, bloated example of excess meshed with merchandising, the Super Bowl stood as a benchmark for the Spring/Summer movie line-up. With the Winter and all its awards season brouhaha finally winding down, and the game’s notoriety as a showcase for advertising excellence and experimentation, studios wishing to launch major movie buzz would always buy up large blocks of time to test out the latest trailers. In past years, blockbusters like Pirates of the Caribbean, Spider-Man 2 and Fantastic Four used the massive viewing audience and instant exposure of the gridiron classic to begin the push for warm weather consideration. As with most of the game’s greatest ads, Hollywood usually leveraged its creative conceits to offer up something truly special.
Not this year, however. Granted, it was a bad year overall for Super Bowl commercials. When you consider that Bud Lite and its joke-based series was challenged for entertainment supremacy by the same old GoDaddy.com sexism, it really wasn’t a great year for pigskin-fueled purchasing propaganda. But the four tepid trailers served up by Tinsel Town, each one no more than 30 sloppy seconds and all offering little or nothing in the way of interest or intrigue, were a blight on the pinnacle of the new American pastime. Sadder still, almost all were previewed on the Internet before showing up during the Indianapolis Colts containment of the Chicago Bears. For anyone who sits through the game solely for the chance to see what show business has in store for their future leisure time, there were more compelling ads for CBS shows than viable cinematic substance.
The first movie trailer to appear during the actual Super Bowl broadcast itself (nothing prior to kickoff was considered as those offerings are not, traditionally, touted as part of the post-game Madison Avenue scorecard) was for the feel good sports movie Pride. It’s yet another in a long line of inspirational stories in which a decent and deserving coach – in this case, Hustle and Flow‘s breakout star Terrence Howard – meets up with a band of misfits and/or disenfranchised kids and leads them through life lessons based in teamwork and physical acumen. Howard’s Jim Ellis starts a swim team for underprivileged and troubled black teens at the Philadelphia Department of Recreation. Stinking of the whole “based on/inspired by a true story” stigma, and featuring a graying Bernie Mac as what appears to be the standard sober sage character, this ‘us against them’ workout has the added element of race to make it play more important than it probably is.
Not that the trailer tells us this. Loaded with labored jump cuts and more than a few shots of suspicious Caucasian kids looking at their urban competition with white flight disgust, the key components of the ad appear to be prejudice and prostylitizing. How Hollywood can keep churning out this overdone genre (didn’t we see the same story a few months back when it was starring The Rock and featured a bunch of juvenile delinquents suiting up to play football as part of some Gridiron Gang?) and still expect audiences to respond is a question only a Hum V driving show biz bean counter can answwer. Maybe Howard and his fifteen-years-in-the-making overnight success can sell some tickets. But with four names on the screenplay and untried director Sunu Gonera behind the lens, this looks like a loser, plain and simple.
So does Hannibal Rising, come to think of it. In the world of popular literature, no one has wasted as much salivating cinematic goodwill as Thomas Harris. Lucky to have Michael Mann bring his Red Dragon to life (forget the Brett Ratner remake – its good but not great) as Manhunter, he saw his Silence of the Lambs become a certified Oscar winner and bravura best seller. So what did this inventive author do? Why, he wrote Hannibal, a tome that more or less shit all over the legacy established in his first two Lecter novels. Indeed, the sense of outrage and repugnance was so great in the creative community that the project was stalled for several months, and Jodie Foster blatantly refused to reprise her Clarice Starling role. Since the one time FBI bright light was destined to become the cannibal doctor’s accomplice and lover, the reason for such a rejection seemed pretty clear.
Frankly, someone at MGM should have used the same power of de-persuasion on the morons behind this mockery of a movie. Looking like Little Hanny Goes Nutzoid in the Super Bowl preview (as well as the numerous online ads that have turned up over the last few weeks) French pretty boy Gaspard Ulliel gets the perplexing prequel duties. Forced to inhabit Harris’s new WWII-set storyline about Lecter, his sister, and some flesh feasting members of the Axis powers, this looks like Glamour Shots as grindhouse gratuity. Thanks to the training of some Japanese relative (a widow of an uncle) and something called “The Tale of Genji”, Lecter learns to channel his pain into repugnant, nauseating revenge. Like the recently released Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning, which promised to show us how Leatherface became a Black and Decker desiring death dealer, Rising is reported to answer all the questions about the compelling character’s past, and people-eating proclivities.
The ad is certainly sketchy enough – several shots of snow-covered fields, frightened little faces, and an overly groomed adolescent grinning as blood spatters his Abercrombie and Fitch formed face. We see the flash of a blade, hear the sound of steel slicing the air, and then for some strange reason, an illustrated façade of Anthony Hopkins morphs into our youthful lead, iconic restraining mask squarely in place. For anyone who still feels a kinship with Harris’ Grand Guignol post Lambs horror hackwork, this looks like another wanton waste of time. The period piece setting doesn’t do a great deal for the already reaching storyline, and the whole Asian angle feels like a tacked on tip of the hat to the J-horror fad of a few years back. Genre fans will line up for almost anything, but it looks like only the most ardent devotees to dread will queue for this uninspired effort.
Speaking of underwhelming, Disney dished up another glimpse of its under the radar CGI spectacle Meet the Robinsons. So far, the trailers have all played like JOHNNY Neutron: Boy Genius, featuring a real lack of legitimate laughs (seriously – does ANYONE think the overly perky lady wearing dozens of caffeine patches is remotely funny? Or clever?). Even worse, these ads tell very little about the time traveling sci-fi storyline, leaving us to infer what the heck the deal is with the Snidely Whiplash wannabe featured throughout. Granted, the T-Rex’s response is kinda cute, but the latte swipe is just lame. Rumor has it that new Disney animation honcho John Lassiter has provided a little of his patented Pixar magic during post-production. Judging from this lackluster collection of clips, the size of the contribution better be massive. For all intents and purposes, this appears to be another in a long line of House of Mouse missteps, made worse by what is a purposefully vague promotional campaign.
All of which leads to the winner of the worst ad of the entire evening, a preview so painful that members of the Chicago Bears defense actually felt superior to the sizable Super Bowl egg this family friendly flop laid. Here’s hoping that Hairspray can save his hemorrhaging prestige, because John Travolta looks lost in the trailer for Wild Hogs. As a matter of fact, after his last few films, the one time superstar’s resurrected post-Pulp Fiction career seems MIA as well. In the loud, boorish PG-13 comedy (always a sign of generic ordinariness) the once and future Vincent Vega teams up with Tim Allen (ugh!), Martin Lawrence (oh no…) and William H. Macy (hmmm…) as four best friends who decide to micromanage their midlife crisis by taking a cross country trip – on motorcycles. Unfortunately, they run into a band of Hell’s Angels-esque bikers and all manner of stale hijinx ensue.
Representative of the sorry state of onscreen comedy, this creaky, imitative effort from Van Wilder ‘genius” Walt Becker just smacks of creative bankruptcy. The whole ‘born to be mild’ vibe given off by the trailer, a hyperactive ad with ADD that never once slows down to establish mood or character, reminds one of the high concept films of the early 80s. Those prefab farces delivered dumb ideas wrapped around an unlikely onscreen presence – in this case, Lawrence and Macy represent the strained stunt casting – hoping to generate a little off the cuff cleverness. Travolta and Allen appear to be taking turns as pre-adolescent party boys, giving a bad name to growing old gracefully while simultaneously subjecting us to erectile dysfunction jokes (or what appears to be the AARP equivalent of same). It’s a grating, groan-inducing mess, the kind of calculated crap that makes one wonder how it ever found its way inside the biggest sports showcase of the year.
The answer, oddly enough, is Variety. Reporting on the lack of prime Hollywood hoopla this time around, the industry publication discovered that studios would rather sponsor an entire pre-game show or segment (as Eddie Murphy’s Norbit and Sony’s Ghost Rider did) than throw their millions away on an ad with little to no box office impact. According to sources, post-game studies show that more people remember a rabid squirrel protecting its master’s Bud Lite than recall the selling points of some ersatz blockbuster. In fact, ever since Independence Day and it’s exploding White House became a water cooler moments for Tinsel Town trailers back in 1996, film companies have had a love/hate relationship with the big game’s advertising agenda. As prices continue to rise (over $2 million and counting this year) and audiences turn to alternate sources of filmic information, the need to blow a massive amount of the publicity budget on a Super Bowl ad seems silly.
Indeed, gone are the days when David Fincher and Ridley Scott could stop a nation cold with their particular brand of artistic advertising. We no longer live in an era of Super Bowl as super salesman. Unless it has something to do with cars, beer or CSI (in any of its many forms), 2007 will definitely be remembered as the year when Hollywood failed to bring it’s A-Game…not unlike the Monsters of the Midway. Call it contractual obligation, or chasing bad money after worse, but here’s betting that Pride, Wild Hogs, Hannibal Rising and Meet the Robinsons fail to get a single mention when Monday morning Madison Avenue quarterbacking begins. After sitting through the 210 minute marathon to experience them, these trailers tell a tale more troubling than tempting. Based on this lame representation, we could have a spectacularly substandard year at the cinema on our hands.