YOU KNOW your movie trailer is playing a tough crowd when about 10 seconds into the trailer for “Love Guru,” as Jessica Alba first appears on screen, someone shouts out: “Love interest!” After the trailer is over, Gabriel Gutierrez, 15, grumbles about the film’s stars: “Jessica Alba and Mike Myers -- she can’t act, and he’s not funny.” To which, Hannah Wood, 15, responds: “Like she’s really there for her acting.”
When teenagers congregate to talk about summer movies, it’s impossible to predict what they’ll say, except that it will surely be acerbic, funny and knowing. Raised on Perez Hilton, schooled by the satirists at the Onion, they are full of a finely honed skepticism for Hollywood’s attempts to bedazzle kids into seeing the latest crop of big summer comedies and superhero films.
Since teens are far more plugged into pop culture than any Hollywood marketer -- or for that matter any bleary-eyed newspaper columnist -- I’ve gotten into the habit of showing the summer movie trailers to a group of kids known as the Summer Movie Posse. Our eighth annual installment comprises seven 14- and 15-year-olds from the Oakwood School who belong to the true target audience for the annual deluge of special-effects extravaganzas that will dominate the multiplexes this summer.
A few highlights from their verdicts: Judd Apatow still rules. Adam Sandler is someone only your little brother would like. Morgan Freeman is considered much cooler than Shia LaBeouf or Cameron Diaz. Harrison Ford looks old, really old. “Speed Racer” looks like “Hot Wheels: The Movie.” And Mike Myers is just not funny anymore.
Nothing much gets by them. After watching one too many trailers introduced by a booming-voiced narrator, Jeremy Katzenstein, 14, lowers his voice and ad-libs, in an announcer’s portentous tone: “You go looking for a miracle, but then a miracle comes looking for you!”
After watching the trailer for “The Happening,” which gives few clues to the story line of the upcoming M. Night Shyamalan thriller, Asher Kaplan, 14, remarks on how similar the trailer feels to the minimalist campaign Paramount used to sell “Cloverfield” this year, saying, “It feels like ‘Cloverfield 2.’ It’s like -- ‘We’re not gonna tell you anything about the movie.’ ”
“Until you see it and are disappointed,” chimes in Tristan Rodman, 14.
The Posse is not infallible, but I’d put their picks up against professional prognosticators. Their top-graded films from 2007, “Superbad” and “Knocked Up,” went on be hits, although they gave low grades to such films as “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry” and “Rush Hour 3,” which sold a lot of tickets too. For the third consecutive year, panelists picked a comedy (“Pineapple Express”) as the film they were most looking forward to seeing, but they were less impressed by upcoming comedies from Sandler and Myers. Even though they joked about Ford’s age, they retain enormous affection for the “Indiana Jones” series, voicing hope that the film is better than the cobwebby teaser trailer they watched.
They also remarked on an intriguing element of the summer action films that has gone largely unnoticed by the entertainment press. This summer’s movies not only are loaded with stories about superheroes; they are also populated with the kind of actors you’d expect to see at the Academy Awards, not Comic Con. “Iron Man” has Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow and Jeff Bridges; “The Incredible Hulk” has Edward Norton, Tim Roth and William Hurt; “The Dark Knight” has Christian Bale, Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine.
I had a more cynical view, assuming those actors took the jobs because they realized that they’d never get a studio gig without having to stand in front of a green screen for a couple of months. But the kids didn’t think the parts were so awful. As Tristan put it, after seeing Will Smith portray a very flawed superhero in “Hancock”: “I love the concept of the action hero not wearing tights and going around with a bottle of liquor -- it’s like he’s a real person.”
The thing these kids hate the most is a movie that tries too hard to be about them. The marketers at Paramount Vantage, which has a teen documentary coming this summer called “American Teen,” were desperate for me to show the trailer to the Posse. I thought the trailer was well crafted, capturing the casual honesty of the film. But the Posse hooted in derision. To them, it felt condescending.
“This is the kind of film where my mom is going to walk in my room and say, ‘There’s this film I want us to watch together and have a real serious talk about it afterwards,’ because she wants to understand what I’m thinking,” Hannah said, with a sigh. “And that’s gonna be an awful experience.”
Here’s a sampling from the Posse’s blunt assessments of the summer film trailers. (See the chart at left for the Posse’s 2008 grades.)
Asher: “We’ve seen ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘Batman’ and ‘Superman,’ but this guy is different. He’s a drunk, he’s breaking things, and he’s hilarious. It’s a great idea. I mean, why should just good people get all the superpowers?”
Tristan: “And it has Jason Bateman. How could you go wrong?”
Asher: “Here’s the problem. The effects are really good, but I feel like I’ve seen a lot of this in dozens of other films. It’s an action movie with a guy who doesn’t know he has a mysterious power and then -- surprise -- here comes Morgan Freeman to tell him what to do.”
Martha Fearnley, 15: “I really liked James McAvoy in ‘Atonement.’ ”
Asher: “I’d say this is a big step down in quality from that.”
Hannah: “Let’s see. They have a car chase, a naked girl, witty back-and-forth between the guy and the girl. It just seems like they have the action and naked girl for the guys, a little bit of a story for the girls.”
Gabriel: “It basically felt like ‘The Matrix’ minus the excuse of -- we’re all in a computer world where nothing has to be real.”
“Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”
Tristan: “Geez, Harrison Ford is old. I mean, older than my dad, if you can believe it.”
Jeremy: “It’s like ‘Rocky Balboa.’ He’s going back into the business again.”
Hannah: “I’m so excited. I loved all the old movies. It’s going to be good. Please let it be good!”
Jeremy: “Stop it -- you sound like Paula Abdul.”
Sofie Cardinal, 15: “I like Steve Carell, but even he couldn’t save this movie.”
Gabriel: “I know they’re playing off Carell’s awkward guy humor from ‘The Office,’ but none of it was funny. And I really loved the old TV show.”
Hannah: “There was a TV show?”
Gabriel: “In the ‘60s.”
Hannah: “Geez . . . I didn’t know that. I thought this was supposed to be like ‘Mr. Bean.’ ”
“You Don’t Mess With the Zohan”
Hannah: “I can’t believe I used to love Adam Sandler. I might go with my friends to see it, but I’m not paying. His old movies were stupid, but they were fun to watch. This one -- it’s just stupid.”
Martha: “Just make sure you say we were laughing at the trailer, not with it.”
Asher: “I have to see it. That could be my stepdad in the movie. He used to be in the Israeli army. He’s just like that character. He treats telemarketers like enemy soldiers.”
Gabriel: “It basically looks like a video game with a serious Disney vibe.”
Hannah: “I loved the cartoon as a kid, but you know it’s going to end with Emile Hirsch winning the race and bringing down the bad guys, so it’s pretty predictable.”
Jeremy: “From the trailer, you wouldn’t even know John Goodman’s in the movie.”
Tristan: “I’d like to see him as Speed Racer. That would be a good movie.”
Martha: “With that cast and all the stoner humor, it’s got to be a Judd Apatow movie. It’s like a ‘Freaks and Geeks’ reunion.
Tristan: “The music is cool -- the most impressive use of M.I.A.'s ‘Paper Planes’ ever.”
Asher: “I think Judd Apatow is definitely getting his mojo back.”
The Big Picture runs every Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions or comments, e-mail them to Patrick. firstname.lastname@example.org.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Foretells like teen spirit
Here’s how this year’s Summer Movie Posse rated the trailers for 15 of the summer’s most anticipated films. Each trailer was graded on a 1-to-10 scale, with the highest possible score being 70.
“The Dark Knight”...66
“Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull”...52
“Hellboy 2: The Golden Army”...43
“Wanted” and “Get Smart” (tie)...39
“You Don’t Mess With the Zohan”...38
“The Incredible Hulk”...36
“The Love Guru”...23
“What Happens in Vegas”...9
Last year’s results
Here’s a look at the posse’s 2007 rankings -- from movies it most wanted to see to those it could do without -- matched against the domestic box-office results.
“The Simpsons Movie”...$183,135,014
“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”...$292,004,738
“Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End”...$309,420,425
“Live Free or Die Hard”...$134,529,403
“Rush Hour 3"...$140,125,968
“Good Luck Chuck”...$35,017,297
“Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer”...$131,921,738
“I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry”...$120,059,556