‘The Road’ versus ‘Old Dogs’

As any husband or wife who has picked the wrong kind of spousal Christmas present knows -- a gym membership, for example, instead of a trip to Maui -- there’s a big difference between earnest and enjoyable gifts. The same can be said when selecting a film to see this holiday season: Some moviegoers actually welcome challenging stories, but many more prefer untroubled fun.

It’s a critical distinction as Hollywood enters the final weeks of the 2009 movie season. Over the next month, audiences will be offered stark choices between disparate filmmaking styles, with perhaps the most telling choice coming this weekend, as “The Road” premieres opposite “Old Dogs.”

There’s no question Disney’s family comedy will sell many more tickets than the Weinstein Co. and Dimension Films’ adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic drama. The real issue is whether “The Road” is among the last of a dying breed: movies aimed at literate adults -- which literate adults haven’t been supporting.

Everywhere you look the movie business is changing, and if you’re a serious movie fan, it’s been mostly for the worse. The makers and distributors of art house films are failing faster (latest victim: Miramax Films) than toxic banks, and the makers of “The Road” aren’t immune. Financier 2929 Productions, which backed “Good Night, and Good Luck” and “We Own the Night,” hasn’t made a movie since “The Road” wrapped in early 2008, and distributors Weinstein and Dimension are now steering their limited resources into genre material like “Piranha 3-D” and “Scream IV.”

Audience tracking surveys suggest “The Road” faces an uphill climb: Nothing quite says “Happy Thanksgiving!” like a movie with cannibalism.

Even though McCarthy’s book about a father and his son struggling to survive a terrifying, inhospitable world was a Pulitzer Prize-winning bestseller, moviegoer awareness of the film is distressingly low -- less than half of the awareness of “Old Dogs.” That’s not the only worrying sign: among those who are “definitely interested” in seeing the end-of-the-world story, the only discernible bloc of support comes from older men and women -- the same demographic likely to attend “Old Dogs,” but in much larger numbers for the John Travolta-Robin Williams comedy.

“The Road” isn’t the only movie that audience surveys suggest has some work to do.

Early polling for writer-director James Cameron’s $310-million “Avatar” from Fox isn’t as favorable as it is for Warner Bros.’ “Sherlock Holmes.” The latter film comes out a week after “Avatar” yet still has significantly higher “definite interest.” At the same time, young girls -- the fanatical ticket-buyers who pushed Cameron’s Oscar-winning “Titanic” into the box-office record books -- are so far showing cool curiosity in Dec. 18’s “Avatar,” preferring by an almost 2-1 margin Dec. 23’s “Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel,” also from Fox.

The new movie from another Oscar winner -- Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones” (Dec. 11) -- will obviously come nowhere close to doing the same kind of business as the director’s “Lord of the Rings” movies. The adaptation of Alice Sebold’s dark novel about a serial killer and his young victim will need four-star reviews to overcome its subject matter.

In the same manner, “The Road” will need to attract consistent critical acclaim and positive word-of-mouth to build box-office momentum. One of its earliest reviews was not kind but later notices, while mixed, have been more favorable.

The initial advertisements for the film made “The Road,” which was once scheduled to be released a year ago, look more like a “Mad Max” knock-off than a serious adaptation of a critically acclaimed novel, as the first trailer used news footage of global destruction that isn’t even in the film. “I wasn’t very involved in that,” director John Hillcoat says of the opening trailer. “All I will say is it’s a tough sell, and I think it’s a good strategy.” A subsequent spot focused more closely on the against-all-odds survival tale between the Man (Viggo Mortensen) and the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee).

Director Hillcoat and star Mortensen say it is that hopeful father-son story that ultimately anchors the tale, and what they both believe audiences will take away from a movie filled with horrors (although an infamously grisly scene of infanticide from the book was shot but cut from the finished film) almost too numerous to count.

“It captures something very difficult -- the spirit of the book,” Mortensen says. The world may be dying, he says, “but it’s luminous. Even though it’s gray and it has a terrible bleakness to it, it’s still beautiful.”

The movie, the actor says, “did not compromise on the bleakness of the book, emotionally or visually. It allowed everything to be naked, raw and visceral. But it was able to capture something uplifting.”

It’s the same view that is working perfectly with “Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire,” which has become a breakout hit for Lionsgate. Though “Precious” contains scenes of incest and physical abuse, it, like “The Road,” is also a survival story.

Hillcoat says “The Road’s” optimism is reflected in the connection between the Man and the Boy: “The movie is really about their relationship, and how one learns from the other.” Readers of the book will know that’s part of the tale and come see the movie, “but the challenge is to tap into the people who haven’t read the book -- the wider audience,” the Australian director says.

“My hope is that people see that the film is about human goodness and what makes us special. Just because it’s set in a very harrowing world -- that’s only to highlight why this relationship is so special.”