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"Stranger Than Fiction" Previews are Misleading

Stranger than FictionSo... what the heck is this movie? I saw a screening for "Stranger Than Fiction" last night and even now, I have no idea.

It's certainly not the laugh riot that we are lead to believe from the previews. In fact, most of the laughs are restricted to the first act of the movie. By the time Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) decides to do something about the voice he hears (the "narrator"), we're not laughing any more - the occasional chuckle, perhaps, but no guffaws for sure.

Columbia Pictures' billing of "Fiction" as a comedy doesn't help moviegoers, nor will it help the film itself. In fact, I think it will significantly hurt the film's box office draw in the long run. "Fiction" will probably do well the first couple of weekends, but as people report back to their friends that the film was "meh" or "you can wait for the DVD," ticket sales will begin to decline at a rapid pace.

Setting expectations is key when trying to win over an audience. Viewers go in with a certain set of expectations and will like or dislike a film based on how well those are met. Here, audiences expect a comedy (based on the previews and trailers) but are served up a different kind of film entirely.

This is not to say that the film is bad or that I didn't like it. I did... kind of. Once I realized that it wasn't a comedy and it was more of a ... well... I don't really know... a self-referential piece about life itself?... then I started to enjoy it in a different way.

The film makes particular point to determine whether or not its story is a comedy or a tragedy. I think it's neither. Overall, I'd say it's just an odd film with a great cast. Many aspects are rather contrived.... but that's the point. I get that that is the point. It doesn't mean I appreciated it.

If I had gone into the theater thinking it was different kind of film, I may have come away with a different opinion. As it is, the film - and particularly the ending - left me rather dissatisfied and confounded. That may be because I went in expecting to have my sides ache from laughing. My sides didn't ache. I barely felt even twinge. That's not necessarily a bad thing depending on what kind of movie this is, though.

So, this is a warning to moviegoers - don't expect "Stranger than Fiction" to be a hilarious romp about a goofy guy pestered by a voice no one else hears. Those elements are there, but they serve as the catalyst for a "larger" story.

With that in mind, I'm very interested in hearing what people think about the film. It has a lot of potential, but folks need a better idea of what they're in for. Does knowing that it's not really a "comedy" per se help you enjoy the film more ... or less? I'm curious what impact expectation has on how much people like or dislike this particular story in the wake of what I believe are very misleading trailers. Yes, inquiring minds want to know.

"Stranger Than Fiction" hits theaters this Friday. -- Shannon Nolley


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Posted by Shannon on November 9, 2006 10:22 AM
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I agree, Shannon. Misleading is definitely the right word. But when promoting “Stranger”, the movie studio really only had two options:

1) Promote the film as a laugh-out-loud comedy in the hopes that the dedicated (and expectation having) Ferrell fans would follow. This is a pretty low risk move from their standpoint given the success of “Old School,” “Anchorman,” etc. Even though they know the movie isn’t exactly the side-splitter they’re promoting it as, it’s funny-ish and it’ll probably get people to the theater.

On the other hand,

2) They could have taken a straight up “Truman Show,” “Punch-Drunk Love” approach and hope that the movie-going public is ready to make the “dramatic actor” leap with Ferrell as they did with Jim Carrey and less so with Adam Sandler. Clearly this is the bigger gamble in terms of mass appeal and box office.

It’s really a shame that the studio didn’t have the confidence in Ferrell (or the public) do put the film out on its own merits. I fear that the majority of those folks that see the film will leave with an impression similar to your own and the movie will suffer as a result.

- Mediaboy

-- Posted by: Mediaboy at November 9, 2006 11:42 AM

I agree with you, Mediaboy. They had limited options, but going the easy way out here does the film a serious disservice.

I'm sure they're playing the odds and hope that they'll get a big draw the first few weekends - enough to put it in the "success" category money-wise.

Competition might be tougher than they had anticipated, though. This weekend it's up against the hit comedy "Borat," which has folks lined up outside of theaters and is raking in the bucks.

Folks looking to spend their cash on a comedy and see "Fiction" instead of "Borat" will likely be disappointed because, well, it's not a comedy.

If they're looking to see a "different" film, though, then "Fiction" may satisfy.

-- Posted by: shannon at November 9, 2006 11:58 AM

I haven't seen the film yet but I'm looking forward to it. I could tell from the trailers that it wasn't a comedy, but I do tend to read into trailers more than most because of their generally misleading nature. After seeing "Brokeback to the Future" and "Shining," I'm a lot more conscious of how marketing plays a role in creating movie expectations.

That said, I recognized that "Stranger Than Fiction" is probably a fairly intelligent, lighthearted look at life. With some funny parts. Like "The Truman Show" or "Groundhog Day," two of my favorite films. If my assumptions are right, I'm going to really enjoy this one.

-- Posted by: Parker at November 9, 2006 1:52 PM

Parker - You're right on. You really might like this one! (Though, it's not entirely "lighthearted" all the time.) Let me know what you think once you see it!

I don't know why I bought into the previews as much as I did. I usually read between the lines. Perhaps it's because I don't usually see comedies in the big theater. Generally, I reserve those dollars for action or horror films where the scale of the screen adds significantly to the viewing experience.

Ah well. As long as folks go in realizing it's more of a "Truman Show" than an "Elf," I'll be happy. It's an interesting flick - obviously worth me going on and on about. :)

-- Posted by: Shannon at November 9, 2006 3:05 PM

Shannon,

I understand giving a brief warning that the ads led you to expect a different film, but shouldn't the bulk of the review be given over to the film made by the director & writer & actors & designers, rather than spending almost all of your space on reviewing the choices made by the marketing department?

-- Posted by: John at November 9, 2006 8:51 PM

Well, I never said this was a movie review. I wanted to talk about something other than the script, the directing, and/or the performances. Fodder reviews are set off with a standard title that says "Review: ____"

I usually leave those to Brian Orndorf over at http://www.filmfodder.com/reviews/

This was about the ads and audience reactions to the film as a result. I'm sure Brian will do the kind of review you're looking for, so please check back to the main Fodder page for that!

-- Posted by: Shannon at November 10, 2006 9:00 AM

Parker - If you liked "Shining" and "Brokeback to the Future," you'll love this.

It's "Office Space" with a different spin.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGNs7QMeV7E

-- Posted by: Shannon at November 10, 2006 9:26 AM

I submitted a review on Thursday. I'm not sure if it will be posted.

Short version: I did not like the film.

-- Posted by: Brian O at November 10, 2006 11:53 PM

I think I was opposite than you Shannon. I went into the film, fearing that I might see an over-the-top Will Ferrell movie, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that it wasn't like that at all. I really enjoyed the movie, and I enjoyed it even more than I was expecting, simply because it wasn't a hilarious comedy, but something more.

I do agree with misleading ads though. I felt that way about The Break Up. It was actually a decent movie, but the trailers showed it as a laugh-out-loud romantic comedy. It would have done much better if they had marketed it as it really was.

-- Posted by: Becky at November 13, 2006 1:37 PM

I actually did hear some news in interviews and magazines that this wasn't going to be a traditional Will Ferrel laugh riot and that it was, sort of, his forray into more "serious" acting. Maybe that's why I didn't really see the trailer as making the movie out to be over the top funny like some of his other frat pack movies (which I loved). The trailer kind of had a "The Breakup" feel to it which is to say not necessarily hilarious but good for a few chuckles and hopefully an attempt at a "bigger story." That being said, I can't say I'm overly excited to see this one. The story just doesn't seem very engaging.

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