When planning a recent trip to the movies, two options presented themselves. One, inevitably, was “Snakes on a Plane,” the much-discussed Samuel L. Jackson thriller. The other was “Little Miss Sunshine,” the small dramedy about a dysfunctional Albuquerque family traveling cross-country so the youngest of the clan can compete in the titular beauty pagaent.
The trip, alas, did not materialize that particular evening. What did occur were brief, telling discussions of the two films by both those who had and had not seen them (at the time, I had only seen “Sunshine;” I’ve since taken in “Snakes”). Those who had seen “Snakes” went through the now-familiar “Snakes on a Plane” conversation cycle, an almost ritualized act for anyone between the ages of 16 and 23: bellowing Sam Jackson catchphrases; giggling with sarcastic delight; validating the film’s worth with wink-wink logic (“It’s Snakes….ON A PLANE!”). And those of us who hadn’t seen it laughed along too, because, why not? You could never see the film and still be perfectly justified merrily quoting its camp-alicious dialogue and mocking its ludicrous premise.
When the conversation turned to “Little Miss Sunshine,” the tone changed considerably. Those of us who had seen the film happily praised its quick-witted script, superb ensemble, and masterful balancing of sweet pathos and vinegary comic situations. When someone brought up a crucial surprise near the film’s conclusion, though, he and the rest of us went mum. The reasoning was simple: the moment is simply too deliciously perfect to tell someone ahead of time. Those who hadn’t seen it understood immediately, and the subject was changed.
I recall this little moment, not to subject you dear readers to personal minutiae worthy of a fourteen-year-old’s Myspace, but because I think it succinctly summarizes everything one needs to know about the failure of “Snakes on a Plane” and the success of “Little Miss Sunshine.” Simply put, people go to the movies to be surprised.
Simplistic? Perhaps. People watch movies for an endless number of reasons, with each new viewing experience adding a layer to our complex relationship with the cinematic medium. We watch for validation, confrontation, provocation, inspiration, or a crazy combination thereof. Underlying all of these reasons, however, is a desire to be shown something we have not seen before. Why bother embarking on a cinematic journey when we know from frame one every point along the way? From a twisty thriller with a jaw-dropper of a finale to a seemingly formulaic romantic comedy with a handful of shockingly incisive one-liners, any movie worth its salt provides some level of the unknown to its viewers.
Much ink has been spilled over why “Snakes on a Plane” failed to translate its deafening, internet-based buzz into boffo box office number (a limiting R-rating, buzz that peaked too early, etc.), and many of these reasons touch upon crucial points. The seeds of its downfall, though, were jauntily sown by the very bloggers that catapulted it into the national spotlight. For what is “Snakes on a Plane” if not the ultimate tongue-in-cheek joke writ large? The goofy, idiotic premise; the “just-add-irony” bluntness of the title; the very presence of Samuel L. Jackson, whose career has been skirting the edges of self-parody long before his plunge into the depths here; every element has the makings for a terrific five minute download on You Tube.
But a feature film? Sorry, no dice. The only suspense “Snakes on a Plane” manages to generate comes from anticipating where the internet-buzzed moments are placed within the movie. Give director David R. Ellis credit for saving up the film’s much-quoted, profanity-laden catchphrase until late in the move, a canny acknowledgment of audience expectation. What becomes painfully clear, however, is that the movie “Snakes on a Plane” collapses like an undercooked soufflé without its accompanying hype. Strip away the ironic quotation marks surrounding the film’s reputation as a mediocre cheese fest and you find…a mediocre cheese fest. Huh.
“Little Miss Sunshine,” it must be noted, is no Mt. Olympus of cinematic originality. Indeed, any movie that targets a child’s beauty pageant as a chief source of satire and features a trash-talking grandparent with a heart of gold should be monitored with extreme caution, lest the viewing audience be sucked into the sixth circle of indie quirk hell. The unexpectedly organic joy of the film comes from the characters’ sharing of our skepticism. Here is a family that re-discovers the vibrant, yearning individuals beneath the calcified assumptions they’ve placed upon one another, and we share in their comic excavation. And while “Little Miss Sunshine” takes some fairly easy pot shots at the horrific gaudiness of beauty pageants, the role this peculiarly lovable group of misfits ultimately takes in the pageant is a thing of wonderfully cracked and, yes, surprising beauty.
I know, I know; stop taking those motherf—-n’ snakes on that motherf—-‘n plane so motherf—-n’ seriously! Fair enough. But I take heart whenever I mention “Little Miss Sunshine” to someone and a sly smile slips across their face. Love it, hate it, or fall somewhere in between, it’s a movie that takes you for a ride and allows you the luxury of trusting that it’ll both bring you somewhere unexpected and carry you safely back again. Somehow, knowing the cinematic itinerary ahead of time just isn’t as fun.