Surprise Surprise

In the past few weeks, I've seen "Are We There Yet," "Hitch" and "The Pacifier." Interestingly enough, I didn't pay for any of these screenings, but that's neither here nor there.

No, what most struck me about these films is how every effort seemed taken to remove every element that might possibly surprise an audience. Anything that might be unexpected was gone. Maybe I see too many movies, but given the premise for each, and a brief introduction to the characters, I knew exactly what all the plot points and turns would be. Exactly. There were a few things I expected in each that didn't turn up, but that was more like a filing down of rough edges than any kind of attempt to be different. Watching these movies, after the opening premise was established, became almost pointless then.

Now, you might be thinking that in the case of "Are We There Yet" and "The Pacifier," that this is because these films are primarily aimed at children, and children (presumably) don't like surprises. Well, I don't particularly buy that. I liked surprises when I was a kid; I thought predictability was pretty boring. I think kids enjoy surprises; I don't think anyone really looks forward to complete predictability in their entertainment choices.

Perhaps the parents are the ones who want predictability--they want to stick the video in the player and not have to worry about what they're exposing their kids to. I can sympathize with that viewpoint. I don't especially agree with it, but I can see the usefulness there.

But where does that leave "Hitch"? There's very little that parents would find offensive here (or kids would find interesting either--it's a romantic comedy after all). It's unlikely that parents would choose to rent this for their kids. Kids might want to see it, because it's a comedy and it stars Will Smith, but you can say that about lots of films that aren't totally predictable.

Is it because we want our romantic comedies to be without surprise? Is the idea of love, of engaging another human being in romance, so daunting that we yearn for a smooth road, rather than a bumpy, unpaved trek through the wilderness? Is this kind of film comforting to people who are facing adult relationships?

If that's the case, I have to wonder if it isn't doing more harm than good by raising unrealistic expectations. True, the ultimate message is to have self-confidence and be yourself, but there's also the message that dripping mustard on yourself is somehow endearing. (Trust me on this--it isn't.)

In these three cases, the movies didn't feel like movies. They felt like promotional films for the actors, the kind of things an agent would show to a producer. "Here's how Vin Diesel, action star, can be versatile and do comedy. Hire him for your next film!"

Let me just wind this up by saying there were things about all three films that were enjoyable, and I had a pleasant time watching them. I guess that's in the way that it is comforting to eat at McDonalds, and it also tastes pretty good too. But you can't eat there all the time. (There was a movie about that, too.)

So I wonder what's going to happen to our comedies in coming years. All of these films were box office successes, so someone out there is finding more to like in these films than I am. I suppose, by filing off the rough edges, you can appeal to far more people. Some pop music is like that as well; it's a pleasant noise that (for me) passes through the ears without engaging anything. It's not offensive or boring, it's just kind of there. All the elements have been assembled, and skillfully so; the work just lacks a compelling reason for existing.

Art needs, I think, some jarring elements in it that engage the senses and thus, the imagination. I recall an interview with John Lennon, where he talked about the genesis of the song "I Want to Hold Your Hand." He sang the first line, and Paul McCartney responded with the riff that makes the song identifiable. "Do that again!" Lennon said. He knew the value of the unexpected, of the next step up.

That's the difference between a song and a siren. The former is trying to start a conversation, the latter is just an undifferentiated warning.

So it is with these three comedies from 2005. What the warning might be, I don't know.