Friday, October 9, 2009

How much is the setting?

Before I get into what I really want to discuss today, allow me to briefly indulge in a little Almost Famous flashback. (As well as my fondness for discussing issues of racial politics).

Just look at this poster, and how teeny tiny the black couple is in the background. What, black man don't get to stand in front? I thought Rosa Parks made it so people like Vince Vaughn and Malin Akerman could not force people like Faizon Love and Kali Hawk to stand in the back of the lake. Or inlet. Or cove. Or what have you.

Oh, and the Almost Famous flashback? Remember how there was that t-shirt of Stillwater, but Billy Crudup was the only band member whose face was in focus? Yep, kind of like that.

But I'm here to talk about something much more sunny today. Specifically, tropically sunny. More specifically, movies whose settings make us want to see them for that reason alone.

I want to see Couples Retreat a lot more than I think I should, given the quality of the jokes from the ads. I mean, they're okay, but they're nothing special. Particularly the joke about the Euro yoga instructor wearing the skimpy grape smugglers, who gyrates his ass in Jason Bateman's face. I've lost count ... is this the 723rd movie with a scene like that, or the 724th?

But I do want to see Couples Retreat -- I can't deny it. And I'm pretty sure this has as much to do with the tropical setting as anything else. Jon Favreau's character puts his finger on it perfectly in one of the clips from the ads: "This place looks like a screen saver!" Exactly.

I'm pretty sure, however, that it's not merely the setting, but a reminder of how much I loved that setting in another recent comedy, which I believe is destined to become one of my top 25 comedies of all time. I'm speaking of Forgetting Sarah Marshall, the superlative 2008 comedy starring the dynamite quartet of Jason Segel, Mila Kunis, Russell Brand and Kristen Bell, which happens to have been set in Hawaii. As if making an even more direct appeal for those who loved Sarah Marshall, Couples Retreat also features Bell, playing Bateman's wife.

Forgetting Sarah Marshall would probably have still been a pretty good movie if it hadn't involved a vacation destination as its backdrop, but the Hawaii setting pushes it over the top. In fact, the Hawaii setting is so intrinsically involved with why we love it, maybe it really wouldn't have been that good without it. Escapism begets laughter begets escapism, and so on. If Peter Bretter (Segel) had accidentally followed Sarah Marshall (Bell) to a hotel in Detroit, we wouldn't have been seeing nearly the same movie.

However, a tropical setting alone is not enough to guarantee liking a film, as we may be about to discover with Couples Retreat. A recent example of a film that struck out in that regard: The Heartbreak Kid, starring Ben Stiller, and, like Couples Retreat, also co-starring Malin Akerman. By being dumb and mean-spirited, the Farrelly Brothers' remake of Elaine May's 1972 film starring Charles Grodin made me not particularly want to go to Cabo San Lucas.

It's not tropical settings alone that can have this impact on us, either. For example, part of the charm of Dumb and Dumber is that a good portion of it takes place in Aspen. And needless to say, this isn't limited to comedies. We love Dirty Dancing as much as we do in part because of its Catskills setting.

Okay, brilliant deduction, Vance. If you have the budget to shoot on location in a beautiful setting, more people will want to see your movie.

So this is not an earth-shattering realization. But it's always good to know how you are being subtly manipulated by the people who market movies to you. If, with that knowledge, you still want to see the movie in question, go ahead.

Just don't expect Forgetting Sarah Marshall every time out, because you'll be disappointed.

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