Adam Sandler in "Funny People."
In the new movie Funny People, Adam Sandler plays George Simmons, a very successful yet self-involved stand-up comedian with no friends who learns that he has an incurable blood disorder and has a year to live. Yup, he's probably going to die, which will pull on our heartstrings and play to on our own fears of death. What's refreshing about this "someone's gonna die" movie, along with this summer's My Sister's Keeper, is that at least the death detail was revealed in the trailer and we expect it. There will be no surprises.
This structure is the reverse of almost every "terminal illness" movie where an incurable disease is introduced in the middle of the film. More often then not the illness is completely unexpected and creates an awkward shift in tone that the filmmakers just spent forty minutes creating. The reason filmmakers use the old "someone suddenly has cancer" trick is because of one reason: it works. It makes the audience cry and leave the theater with a renewed appreciation of life. But honestly, who needs that? Especially when you thought you were seeing an entirely different movie!
A perfect example of this phenomenon is the movie The Family Stone. A movie which, according to the trailer, is going to be a funny, fish-out-of-water, family Christmas comedy where adorable people like Sarah Jessica Parker, Rachel McAdams and Luke Wilson are going to look and act adorable. Totally on board! And the first hour of the movie is exactly what we were sold. It even has a great scene where the Stone women, mom Sybil (Diane Keaston) and sister Amy (Rachel McAdams), take an immediate dislike to Meredith's (Sarah Jessica Parker) humorless aura and attack her venomously, sparking a téte-a-téte-a-tete between the three razor-sharp, feisty females. But that's where the adorableness ends and it's soon revealed that Sybil is dealing with a fatal illness and this will her last Christmas alive. So if you liked watching Sarah Jessica Parker be very un-Carrie Bradshaw like or you were enjoying the flirty fun between Dermot Mulroney and Claire Daines, it's over. Pass the tissues!
Then there's Stepmom with Julia Roberts and Susan Sarandon. In the trailer we're warned that this film is going to be a depressing look at divorce and the threat of getting a new mommy. Wrong! Turns out it's a depressing movie about divorce and about old mommy (Susan Sarandon) dying of cancer and never getting to see her young children grow up. Now new mommy Julia Roberts is like "Great, now I have to be nice to this wretched woman?" Didn't anyone realize that the cancer was going to ruin the momentum of the movie? Couldn't they just have shown more scenes of Julia Roberts being a glamorous and successful fashion photographer in New York City? That's way more fun to watch.
The reality is when someone divulges that they have a terminal illness in a movie, everyone suddenly has to be kind to that person no matter what. Which is exactly why in The Royal Tennenbaums, Royal (Gene Hackman) realizes he's broke, homeless, and hated by his family so he devises a plot to convince them that he has stomach cancer to win back the affections of his estranged wife and children. And it works. The entire family begrudgingly loves him again. That is, until they all find out he was lying and it produces the opposite desired effect. So why did he attempt to get away with it? Because it has worked in every terminal illness movie ever written! Gene Hackman even won a Golden Globe. You win awards for death movies.
So is there hope that these types of "ambush illness movies" films will cease to surprise and torment us given the fact that the trailers for Funny People and My Sister's Keeper reveal the terminal illness before you even have to by a ticket? Sadly, no. This is because filmmakers have already poisoned the minds of our youth. Case in point: the teen drama hit Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. There you are, just enjoying the sisterhood and their pants, when one second you have this wisecracking yet precocious tween annoying one of the girls in the sisterhood and then the next thing you know Bailey stops coming around, then she's pale and in the hospital, then she's a goner. Huh? Why is that even in a teen movie? Whatever happened to everyone worrying about prom or who the captain of the cheerleading squad is dating? Thankfully, Bailey was already dead and unable to be used as an emotional pawn in the sequel (even if her memory was).
The moral of the story is, despite these two summer '09 movies that prepare us for an emotional rollercoaster going in, ambush illness movies will still exist. Which is very unsettling. So the next time you walk into what you think is a Will Ferrell comedy, pack some tissues because who knows, about 60 minutes in he too might announce he's terminal. You've been warned.
Sarah McLaughlin has been writing for various television sitcoms for the past six years, including the hit Fox TV show "That '70s Show," where she was executive story editor. She is currently writing for and co-producing the new ABC sitcom "Single With Parents," starring Alyssa Milano, as well as working as a freelance entertainment reporter/columnist for iVillage and various movie sites.
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