When you run into a film unlike any you’ve ever seen before, there’s a temptation to attempt to make sense of it through other films one has seen. How else would we know a unicorn, except by our previous experience of the horse + a horn? Newness is so rare in the film business that perhaps we don’t respect the challenge posed by originality, both to the perceptions of the viewer, and more particularly, to the money that would make a leap of faith to back such an original beast.
In Robert Altman’s 1992 film The Player we get a glimpse at the process whereby films are pitched in Hollywood. Everything seems to be sold on the basis of what’s come before. We hear pitches for films that (for example) are described as follows:
“It’s like The Gods Must Be Crazy except the coke bottle is an actress.
Right. It’s Out of Africa meets Pretty Woman.“
OR (and this one is even more twisted)
“It’s a cynical, political thriller comedy… he has an accident. And he becomes clairvoyant, like a psychic. So it’s a psychic, political, thriller comedy with a heart. not unlike Ghost meets Manchurian Candidate.”
If this is how it works –and it’s so disgustingly corporate that one can’t help but believe it—then no wonder the industry is so derivative, no wonder films are all spin-offs, sequels and imitations. And how could the money help itself, but to conservatively work from existing models that have worked..?
Sure, Altman was after laughs –and got them—but this is an edgy satire precisely because it contains more than a grain of truth. Genres can be many things, but in my opinion the key part about genre is that they furnish a way to help us understand what we are seeing and what to expect. When those executives describe films based on what’s been made before –naming lists of films, no matter how comical—they are only seeking to understand the unknown. If they were scientists staring at a newly discovered life-form on the Martian surface, you’d hear hypothetical possibilities based on what we know.
“It’s insect-like” (if it has multiple legs and/or an exoskeleton)
“It’s quasi-reptilian (if we see the appropriate structural features of a reptile)
And so, silly as those descriptors sounded in The Player, you can’t blame them for trying to make sense of the unknown.
I am remembering Altman’s generic hypotheses today because I saw a film whose plot superficially resembles another, yet in so many ways is so unique as to be very difficult to describe. I am less inclined to see Altman’s dialogue as comical, feeling far more sympathetic to that sense of being lost in a strange place.
Young Adult first caught my attention because of its talent. Directed by Jason Reitman, written by Diablo Cody, and starring Charlize Theron, I was thrown completely by its trailer. WTF? The film is presented as a very dark comedy. The stats I saw online suggest that it cost $12 million to make, earning $20 million worldwide.
Does Young Adult really resemble any film I’ve seen? There are a couple that come to mine. I am embarrassed that I have to resort to plot templates as if I were one of Altman’s pathetic pitchmen in The Player. but in so doing I am not so dismissive as I once was. Perhaps I underestimated Altman in seeing only comedy in those lines.
Speaking of comedy, I am finding the boundaries of the genre are changing. When someone speaks of an “edgy comedy” that’s another way of saying that the material challenges the usual boundaries of what’s acceptable. Perhaps the plot is so serious that some won’t see the humour, or the laughs are dark at best.
Earlier this decade we saw comedies showing off darker shades of the male American psyche, such as The Hangover (which recently saw its sequel), Superbad, and Wedding Crashers. Films from such talents as Ben Stiller, Will Ferrell, Judd Apatow and Adam Sandler have all made money, while celebrating variations of male dysfunction & failure.
With Bridesmaids, the male neurotic comedy of post-adolescent anxiety was successfully cloned in female form, and was not only every bit as profitable, but perhaps even edgier because the situations and characters are still too new to be conventional. That’s another way of saying that one doesn’t really know what to expect. Enjoy the freshness while it lasts.
Young Adult is much more than a clone. I had the magical experience of being truly disoriented, unable to orient myself according to precedents. The only film I can easily compare it to is Funny People, Judd Apatow’s lengthy exploration of the comic sensibility starring Sandler opposite his wife Leslie Mann. The lead in each film is a narcissistic egomaniac, each egomaniac seeking to revive a hopelessly failed relationship. The key difference between the films is simply the difference in our society between men and women. Where we seem to love charming male egomaniacs, when that strutting ego is female, it’s very threatening.
By reversing the genders everything becomes problematic. Is Young Adult even a comedy? I was blown away by Theron’s work, Cody’s writing, Reitman’s direction. Without giving anything away, I believe the ending problematizes the kind of ending we see in Good Will Hunting. Where Apatow lets us down gently in Funny People, Cody, Reitman & Theron take us deep into the heart of the American soul at a time when success has never seemed more elusive.
I am looking forward to seeing it –and them—again. The fertile ground for the next decade is not so much in the cross between existing genres, as in crossing genders. I think the new formula (or one of them) is to take an existing template, and then giving us its mirror image using females instead of males.
It’s not so new as to be unrecognizable, but new enough to be truly explosive. In case it’s not clear, i totally love this film. I think it’s the most original film I’ve seen this year, a film with important lessons. See it while it can still disorient you.