Sunday, December 23, 2012

The language of personal ads

Coming up with movie titles that sound straight out of personal ads is by no means some hallowed Hollywood tradition. In fact, in canvasing my brain on the topic, the only one I could immediately think of was Single White Female -- and in truth, that's just the elongated form of the personal ad notation SWF, which indicates the demographic of the type of roommate the poster is seeking.

Speaking of seeking ...

The year 2012 has featured two such movie titles: Safety Not Guaranteed, which we saw about a month ago, and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, which we watched last night as kind of a belated doomsday theme movie. (The world hadn't ended and it was already December 22nd in many parts of the world, but we thought it was a good theme viewing anyway -- we still had a couple hours of December 21st left here in Los Angeles.)

With Safety Not Guaranteed, the title is literally an extraction from a personal ad. Those three words are the caveat given to the reader should he or she choose to undertake the ad's offer of traveling back in time with the poster. "If you die, it's on you."

With Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, it's only an encapsulation of the film's themes, using the language we usually associate with such ads. "Seek" is just about the most common verb used in personal ads, as in "SWF seeks same." It's interesting, in a way, that normal people can even comprehend these ads, since the fact that they charge by the word requires heavy reliance on shortcuts in logic. It's kind of like reading those ridiculous Variety headlines: "Sticks nix hick pix."

And actually, there's a third example that I haven't seen yet: For a Good Time, Call ... This might be more likely to be scrawled on a bathroom stall wall than appear in the personals, but I'm sure it could appear there too, and I'm sure it originally appeared there before gravitating to this more unsavory medium.

The thing that's weird about this sudden "trend" is that it comes at a time when people don't really use personal ads the way they once did. In fact, you could argue that the target audience of all three films is more accustomed to transacting this type of business on Craigslist, where there's no premium on the words used and the poster can actually type out complete sentences (if they're capable of writing one).

Why, then? Well, it could just be another case of everything that's old being new again. Our reaction to the way technology has taken over our lives is to willfully go back to a time when it hadn't. There's something very quaint about placing a personal add. If they'd shown Mark Duplass actually composing his advert for a daring time-traveling companion, the scene probably would have depicted him hard at work on a clunky old typewriter.

It's appropriate, as well, that the two movies I've seen both deal with a central romantic relationship, even though the thing both titles are overtly requesting is only friendship or partnership. It seems that the most classical way to use a personal ad is to seek (there's that word again) out a love interest. Neither of these scenarios involve that on the surface, though of course that's what materializes.

I just wished I liked either of these movies better.

Both are terrific in concept. The idea of investigating a crackpot who thinks he can travel back in time, in order to write a quirky newspaper piece about him, is rich with potential -- it creates the necessary conflict by having the reporter hold back a key piece of information from the crackpot the whole time she's growing closer and closer to him. And with Seeking, when was the last time you saw someone try to do a romantic comedy that was set during the final weeks of planet Earth? Answer: Never, and I always loving seeing them attempt to do things I've never seen before.  

But the execution is wanting in rather significant ways. The resolution of Safety Not Guaranteed is too much of a departure from the kind of movie it seemed to me they were making, and that narrative gets sidetracked by a B story that's given nearly as much weight as the A story even though it comes out of nowhere and doesn't deserve such emphasis. And with Seeking, the perfect seriocomic tone is established in the first half-hour before being abandoned for a mix of dreary and schmaltzy, and the plot elements become unforgivably slapdash. Plus, the laughs die off a good week before the people do.

So I feel like placing my own personal ad:

"Seeking a good movie inspired by a personal ad."

Maybe For a Good Time, Call ... will respond. 

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