I recently learned all about "Poe's Law," from Cracked Editor David Wong. Poe's Law is a handy little concept invented by Nathan Poe in a religious Internet forum a few years ago. According to Wikipedia, the "core of Poe's law is that a parody of something is by nature extreme, [which] makes it impossible to differentiate from sincere extremism." In Nathan's case, the law applied to his inability to distinguish religious extremism from a parody of religious extremism. I don't hang around religious forums (court order), but I'm starting to feel like Poe's Law is just as applicable to movies. Something about movies changed over the last few years. Like Poe, I'm looking at the world around me and desperately searching for a joke that would be impossible to find.
I can no longer tell if movies are being serious. I used to be able to watch trailers and say, "This is clearly a parody" or "This is just a bad movie." But, these days, the gap between the two has become so blurry and thin, I'm like Nathan Poe, looking for some kind of winking emoticon that let's me know what's what. So many people will say that they love movies like Machete and Drive Angry and Snakes On A Plane "ironically" which is absolutely meaningless to me because A) I'm kinda dumb, B) irony as a concept was murdered by the Internet years ago and C) I only know how to like movies or hate movies genuinely. Some filmmakers are embracing this idea of movies being designed to be consumed ironically, while other filmmakers are just making shitty movies. And the frustrating thing is that there is no observable difference between the two. Once upon a time, I could finish watching a trailer and my only thought would either be "That was good" or "That was bad." Now, I watch most trailers and I just scratch my head, thinking, "Hey, filmmakers: Did you really mean that? Do you think shooting a movie where Nicolas Cage has sex on a motorcycle while he shoots machine guns is a genuinely good idea, or a patently ridiculous (and therefore 'ironically' good) idea? Is any of this a joke?"
To help illustrate my point, I watched three current movie trailers of films that are either terrible or hilarious from three different genres (Romantic Comedy, Comedy, Action), over and over again, all day. (My job is pretty cool.)
What's Your Number?: Worst Movie Ever, Or Worst Movie Ever And Also I Killed Myself
What's Your Number? is based on the novel I Taught My Nutsack How to Write a Book by some woman's nutsack, and it'll be in theaters later this year. Lead Female Character, Anna Faris, desperately wants to find a handsome husband as she feels hollow and incomplete without one -- because even though Romantic Comedies are aimed at women, the people who write them either have never met or aggressively hate women. She reads a study claiming that it usually takes 20 boyfriends before you find your soul mate (I think), so she decides to go back and meet up with all of her previous awful boyfriends to find out which guy was No. 20 (probably?). She enlists the help of her handsome neighbor (Chris Evans), and by working together they will learn that, spoiler alert, they've made a shitty movie. Anna Faris is, as always, lovable and adorable, but her character is a disorganized bag of hacky Romantic Comedy stereotypes and wide-eyed confusion.
"Riding a bike in a bridesmaid's dress! How quirky and unconven- Wait, hold on, am I shitting myself right now?"
Why It Feels Like a Joke:
Watch absolutely as much of the trailer as you can, and then come right back here. Back? Good. While you were watching a small portion of that trailer and then subsequently coaxing a brain aneurysm into submission, I built a robot designed to recognize patterns in Romantic Comedies. Its job was to go through every RomCom in history and find the most common and tired RomCom hallmarks. You might be shocked to learn that What's Your Friggin' Number? managed to cram every single tired RomCom trope into a single trailer. Most movies just overlap in one or two areas, but Number hits every damn mark. I don't know if it's because the movie is terrible, or because the movie is trying to symbolize the death of Romantic Comedies by exploiting all of its tropes, I just know I never want to see it because the ingredients still lead up to a shitty mean. Let's see what this trailer has ...
- A soundtrack full of chick pop music (check).
- A woman behaves impossibly awkwardly and even though she is likable, attractive and charming, she can't seem to land a man:
- An equally attractive and charming man -- who is her polar opposite emotionally and intellectually -- shows up and they form a bond that everyone except them knows will inevitably lead to a perfect relationship:
- WACKY DATE MONTAGE!:
- A wedding where our plucky, optimistic protagonist is of course a bridesmaid, never a bride:
- WACKY COSTUME MONTAGE!:
- A series of brilliant comedic actors being wasted in terrible, underwritten supporting roles:
This is all awful, but the moment that made my robot actually weep came at around 30 seconds into the trailer, when Anna asks, "How many relationships do I have to have before I find the right guy?" into a phone while walking down the street in a city. That, in a sentence, is the central conflict of every single female-centric Romantic Comedy that has ever existed. Single woman in the city, talking to her best friend/confidant and complaining about how she can't find Mr. Right. That is an academic deconstruction on the idea of Romantic Comedies, but instead of showing up on a college paper in some pretentious Theories On Romantic Comedies In Pop Culture class that I absolutely would've taken if they'd offered it at Rutgers, the lead actress is actually saying it out loud.
"Honey, I'm serious, this movie is making me shit myself."
And that's why this movie can't be real to me. For this to be real, at the very least a screenwriter, director and actress had to read a line of dialogue that could have been pulled from literally any Romantic Comedy ever and said, "Yes, I will sign on to make this fresh and original movie." No. No no no. This is clearly a very clever fake trailer designed to expose the crappy paint-by-numbers approach to modern Romantic Comedies. It has to be a fake, because the alternative is that multiple people were paid to make it.
"Baby I swear to God if we don't leave soon I might never stop shitting. This movie is a witch."
Hangover II, Is Like The Hangover Meets The Hangover
It's the sequel to the movie that, statistically speaking, you saw in theaters and own on DVD.
I really liked The Hangover. I enjoy all of the main actors involved, I thought the jokes were solid and it felt like a fairly original story. Mysteries have been done before, sure, but drunken comedy mysteries with Zach Galifianakis? That's a new thing. So I really had a blast watching it. I left the theater happy, because I thought, Good, now all of these funny actors that I like can break out and do a bunch of other movies.
Or, hey, they could just do The Hangover again and again, and never change a thing.
Why It Feels Like a Joke:
The Hangover: Part Two is less a sequel and more of an almost shot-for-shot remake, albeit in a different setting. If you think I'm exaggerating the similarities, go ahead and watch the trailers for Part One and Two back to back. Or screw it, I'll just show you.
Both trailers open in the exact same way, with Zach Galifianakis' character doing something embarrassing and wacky in front of people. In the first, he stands around wearing a jock strap and, in the second, he tells an inappropriate story about Stu during his rehearsal dinner.
At about 36 seconds into the first Hangover trailer, the main characters all get together and raise their glasses for a toast. In Part II, this happens at about 40 seconds in.
Each of these scenes is then followed by a blurry, rapid-fire, wild party montage, a pure white screen and a close-up on one of the main characters' faces as he wakes up on the floor ...
... followed by a scan of the demolished hotel room ...
... followed by Ed Helms' character realizing that there is something horribly different about his face. A missing tooth in Hangover, a face tattoo in the sequel (and, in both cases, Bradley Cooper's character raises a hand to his mouth and tries to stifle a laugh. Both. Twice. Two times.)
- At this point in Part One, they stumble upon a baby that they then have to carry around, in Part Two it's a monkey they have to travel with.
- Next, they realize they're missing an important part of their group (the groom in Part One, the younger brother of the bride in Two).
- 1:23 into the Part One trailer, when the guys realize what trouble they're in, they all get worried except Zach Galifianakis' character, who lets out a short laugh and happily says, "We were messed up." 1:33 into Part Two, when the rest of the guys realize what trouble they're in, he lets out a short laugh and happily says, "We love to party," with the exact same inflection and, in both trailers, the background music cuts out the instant he says his line.
- They decide that the only way to find their missing person is to follow a series of clues based on what they have in their pockets. They treat this like a brand new discovery in Two even though they clearly made the same realization in One.
- At just around the 2:00 mark, an angry woman is on the phone demanding answers from the guys. I didn't specify which trailer, because it happens in both, at the same time.
And so on. A bunch of wacky stuff happens, some jokes are thrown in, Ed Helms screams, "What is going on," and the trailers end.
I understand that the first movie was very successful, and when things are successful in Hollywood, no one wants to mess with the formula, but come on, they're basically daring us to pay money for a movie we've already seen. This could basically be the exact same script with every instance of "baby" crossed out and replaced with "monkey."
Those guys who do the [Genre] Movies don't exactly understand what parody is, so sometimes they'll just recreate a scene from an iconic comedy and just replace the original jokes with jokes of their own that, generally, are worse. That's not a parody; that's just redoing an already funny thing and changing the wording of the jokes. That's what this trailer felt like to me, and when your legitimate Hangover 2 trailer could pass for the trailer for Friedberg and Seltzer's Hangover Movie, you're in big trouble.
Fast Five, or Fast Times At Furiousmont Diesel (Working Title)
Fast Five is the fifth installment of the Fast and Furious franchise, the most beloved film series among boners worldwide. The film stars Vin Diesel, The Rock, Paul Walker, many, many cars and about a metric ton of just butts. I haven't read a synopsis anywhere (I'm pretty sure IMDb describes it as "Vroom gun? Gun gun gun Tits. It's the most explosion you'll have this butt!"), but if the poster is any indication, it's about ... nothing? Everything?
The only thing that's clear is that none of these actors were in the same room when they were photographed for this poster. I'm sure a photographer just planted them in front of a green screen and picked the coolest-looking photo of each, except for Guy In The Back With The Needlessly Wide Leg Stance and Vin "No One Told Me What To Do With My Hands" Diesel. Paul Walker took care of his own hand situation by passionately pointing a gun at nothing in particular (in acting, this is called "having a terrible agent"). The Rock is moving slowly, which only highlights the fact that nothing about this poster is particularly fast or furious. People are mostly stationary and, at best, glaring somewhat angrily and, at worst, casually leaning on a car with their hands in their pockets. Interesting side note: The reason Paul Walker looks so out of place is that he, evidently, never showed up for this photoshoot, so the designer just copied and pasted his pose from an older Fast Five poster.
At any rate, if you're anything like me, you are going to see this movie this weekend, and you have no idea why.
Why It Feels Like a Joke:
I watched the trailer for this movie. A lot. I understand if you didn't; at a glance, it's a fairly heady and complicated trailer with a lot of twists and turns. It's just not for everyone, if you catch my (Tokyo) drift. While it may seem complex and perhaps too "involved" for someone who isn't in the industry of either speed or fury, I've learned that the two-minute trailer -- and I assume, the movie -- actually divides neatly into five easy-to-digest categories. These are the five things the director wants you to know about this movie:
Category 1: Cars
The movie is about cars, you see.
Takes Up: About 40 percent of the trailer.
This is obvious. People go to see these movies because they want to see cars driving super fast, and then eventually crashing into things in a variety of beautiful, physics-defying ways. The Rock's character seems to think that when Diesel and Walker get behind the wheel, they become magic. The director feels similarly. Whenever there seems to be a dull, quiet or otherwise non-car-filled moment, he likes to believe that filming a bunch of cars exploding will distract the audience long enough to forget that these movies are objectively terrible.
I sort of hate that he's right.
Category 2: One Liners
Staring at this picture while listening to Bruce Springsteen's "Secret Garden" is a totally different experience.
Takes Up: About 25 percent of the trailer.
As a small child, my approach to playing with action figures involved holding them high in the air and smashing them together while speaking exclusively in badass one-liners that I'd half-remembered from cartoons, and my nightly viewing of Die Hard (my parents are the best). I'd lift up Batman and slam him, head first, into Wolverine, and Batman would say, "If you like that, taste this!" Then Wolverine would hurl his whole body right into Batman's face while saying, "You and what army?!" Batman would quickly retort with, "I'm gonna enjoy this," and Wolverine would deftly counter with, "You can talk the talk, but look out, fella, I'm punching you!"
Someone associated with Fast Five recorded those early action figure adventure sessions and used them for the basis of this screenplay.
Category 3: Dem Butts
Takes Up: Like, 20 percent, which is seriously a lot.
Hella butts, y'all! Seriously, this trailer only interrupts the action for one reason: slow pushes on neat butts.
It probably goes without saying, but just in case, I should point out that these are not plot-forwarding butts. Vin Diesel never says, "Hey, Ludacris, Other Guy, get outta that car and come over here; we need to drive fast cars or those butts are going to explode!" The Rock never pulls over to the side of the road saying, "Damn, they're getting away with all of the car money. I'd be able to catch them, but I'm out of gas, and my car runs on butts." They serve no story function. Just butts for butts' sake. There are just enough gratuitous smash cuts to butt in this picture to make you think the director is fucking with you.
On the one hand, I have no complaints because butts are the best. On the other, and this is sort of my biggest concern with Fast Five, this movie is likely going to be number one at the box office this weekend and 20 percent of its trailer is butts.
Category 4: Punching
"You call that punching? How's this for punching! Punch!"
Takes Up: About 10 percent of the trailer.
The punching is included to remind people that violence can always happen, regardless of your resources. Sure, mostly they're blowing things up with grenades or throwing giant cars at trains (America!), but the filmmakers want to assure their audience that even when all of the cars are blown up, and all of the guns are out of ammo, big sweaty dudes will still be able to punch other big sweaty dudes until someone builds more cars. You didn't even need those cars, Vin. The violence was inside you the whole time.
Category 5: People Recklessly Jumping From High Things
Takes Up: Five percent.
Definitely the most oddly specific category on the list. Five percent might not seem like a lot, but it is kind of striking when you realize that there are only, like, four or five stunts in this trailer that don't take place in cars and every single one of them is a jump. You'd think the director would get tired of jumping, or you'd think the guy who edited the trailer would want to show off some other stunts or maybe toss a few more butts in, but you'd be wrong. They're really quite proud of their jumping, and they want you to know it.
You've got Vin Diesel jumping off of a roof ...
... Paul Walker and a woman jumping off that same roof ...
... Paul Walker jumping off of a train (onto a car!) ...
... Paul Walker and Vin Diesel jumping a car off of a cliff ...
... Finally, Paul Walker and Vin Diesel jumping out of the car they just jumped off the cliff ...
Jumping is the solution when punching isn't an option, which it always is, which is why the trailer also features a sequence where The Rock jump-punches someone.
So here we are. The big movie that kicks off the summer blockbuster season is just cars, punches, jump-punches, butts, one-liners, jumping, butt-jumps, leaping-quips, butt-carring and punch-punches. That's why I can't tell if this is an action movie or a parody of action movies or what. I ask people who want to see this movie if they're going ironically or because it genuinely looks good, and no one knows. It feels like there's a joke somewhere, but no one can find it. Meanwhile it's getting great reviews.
It's 2011, a time when action movies like Inception can happen, but the No. 1 movie this weekend is just going to be butts and cars. We're just like Poe, trying to find out if this movie is exaggerating and commenting on over-the-top action tropes, or if it is genuinely just a loud, dumb action movie.
... There is none? I've learned there's no line between parody and extreme stupidity here on the Internet. I still have some questions. Does making a stupid action movie highlight how bad action movies have become in Hollywood, or is it just a stupid action movie? Is one of those options better? Does anyone want to see this with me today?
For more things Hollywood won't let go of, check out 5 Things Hollywood Reuses More Than Plots. And get you some more Dan in Why It's Time to Stop Paying Attention to Lady Gaga.