Buddy movies featuring hapless slackers in extreme circumstances, occupy a valuable niche in the domestic market, appealing, despite coarse humor, male protagonists and male pre-occupations, to mixed audiences. Yet the International Red Band trailer for 30 MINUTES OR LESS, which skillfully plays to its core, young adult, male audience makes no effort to address or appeal to female audiences (of whatever age or cinematic inclination) outside the US.
Presumably the marketers believe that luring women to such an entertainment – whatever the cinematic reality as opposed to the marketing chimera– is a Sisyphean task. Still, I can’t help thinking that the trailer overcompensates for the emasculating victimization experienced by its protagonist, played with frantic oafishness by Jesse Eisenberg. The number of times the trailer employs sexualized profanity, oral-erotic imagery, phallic figures etc. cannot be accidental or motivated exclusively by Eisenberg’s predicament. It’s that decision—of how to tell the story told about this movie—which draws me in.
Rather than psychoanalyze the trailer—a thankless task and methodologically suspect to boot—I turn instead to an analysis of how the trailermakers express themselves in marketing and promoting the film. Since a trailer is not an eruption of unconscious processes, but a carefully considered, audio-visually engineered mechanism for associating desirable emotional responses with a context, content and characters, I’m entitled to look at it this way. (I have to assume trailer making is a rational, self-conscious-headed process undertaken by creative artists who understand their commercial obligations as well as the psychology of their audiences, otherwise I’m wasting my time with this blog!!)
So, let’s take a look at what the trailer shows and says before considering whether such choices are optimal.
From :03 to :17, Nick (Eisenberg) and Chet (Ansari) are introduced and the dynamic of their friendship is sketched. Nick watches from his stoop, flicking beer bottle caps in classic slacker attitude, as Chet receives a blow job in his car from his girlfriend. Nick hassles him for kissing her after he’s “fucked” her mouth, which Chet defends as an act of chivalry and gratitude despite the admittedly abject quality of such contact.
After the Columbia and MRC logos, we meet mouth-breathing buddies Travis (Nick Swardson) and dominant Dwayne (Danny McBride) who concoct the scheme of forcing some sap to rob a bank for them. A commercial advertising a pizza restaurant’s 30 minute guarantee is the “ahah” moment for Dwayne, as we cut to a shot of stoner Nick power sliding his delivery vehicle to a stop.
Oddly (or tellingly), Dwayne explains the serendipity of finding their patsy in this speech: “sometimes fate takes out its big old cock and smacks you in the face with it,” an odd anthropomorphism of fate, one that also smacks of (proscribed, yet rhetorically reified) male on male oral sex. Fate, it seems, will have its way, even with such confidently (pussy eating, gun firing, explosive savvy and blue-collar) heterosexual guys as these.
Next, in a parallel sequence, Nick explains his predicament to Chet cutting back and forth between the hallway outside Chet’s grade-school classroom, and the auto junk yard that is Travis and Dwayne’s crib. Chet is suitably horrified.
After a card informing us that the director of this film also directed Eisenberg in Zombieland, we return to Chet and Nick, as Nick demands help and Chet, thinking what the situation demands, slaps Nick hard, insisting he pull it together.
The longest scene in the trailer involves our unlikely heroes in a worrisome exchange with a cashier, who clocks their purchases as those of a rapist. She refuses to be convinced by their denials, (Chet describes them, tellingly, as “small fry”) and the scene ends with the exchange of a confused, ashamed and guilty look.
The minimal copy run, more like a print campaign than a theatrical trailer, continues with the card: TIME IS MONEY, followed by some quick cut scenes of indeterminate relevance and a longer shot of the antagonists fondly recalling their “Satanic” phase in high school. “DON’T BLOW IT” reads the following card, a reference to time and money, but also, well the male member. (The message: don’t be the subordinate, the insertee, the servicer or the “bitch.” )
We then segue into the active part of the trailer, with the boys racing somewhere in their car as Chet’s girlfriend asks, “what happened to you guys,” since clearly something has changed in their demeanor. They’ve bonded, obviously, and found their mojo in this most authorized and glorious of homosocial (between men) bonding behaviors.
Cut to the poorly planned and confusion laden bank robbery, with unexpectedly funny and awkward consequences, followed by a quick cast run of the four principles. Next, Chet and Nick are in flight from the police, as Dwayne and Travis observe. Chet explains to Nick that just because he drives a delivery car, he is not thereby a professional driver, undercutting Nick’s confidence, which is then shattered when they are T-boned by a cop car, which flips the boys, sending them sliding diagonally toward the camera, both of their mouths open, their heads tilted identically, screaming in unison.
By the way, this is a terrific image, capturing as it does, the literal over-turning of their plans and the out-of-control aspect of their adventure.
At 2:21, we see the title spelled out in four shots. Lastly, a clever button ends the trailer: A policeman arrests Chet and Nick, demanding they drop their weapons. To this request, Nick responds by tearing open his jacket to expose the explosive vest he’s wearing, hysterically shouting at the armed policeman, “guess what, you’ve just brought a gun to a bomb fight, officer,” at which point the cop drops his gun and runs for safety.
I don’t think I’m reading too much into it, to call this scene a lightly veiled (barely sublimated) “pissing contest” or moment of phallus-comparison, one which Nick wins against at stout, African-American, pistol-packing cop.
As a high-concept movie, the premise of the film is easily and briefly stated. Jesse’s character, a pot-smoking, pizza-delivery boy, is outfitted, against his will, with a suicide bomber’s vest and told to rob a bank as the price of releasing him from the timed explosion. Given the outrageous, thought-experiment quality of the premise, it’s the relationships and the awkward situations that ensue which absorb the bulk of screen time, rather than the improbably mechanics of his victimization. This is a comedy after all, and the Mcguffin of plot is merely the occasion for “stupid guy” and “nerdy guy” hi-jinks.
And yet Eisenberg’s victimization (whatever the details) is critical, since it both focuses his thought and motivates his energies toward survival and retribution. Moreover, his victimization, beyond its role as the initiator of plot, is also the source of the trailer’s appeal. Why, you ask, would an audience derive pleasure from a character’s emasculating victimization? I appeal to Dr. Freud and his concept of the repetition-mastery complex for the answer. This psychological coping mechanism allows for a negative experience to be relived but resolved differently.
In this trailer (as in the film) the victimized and emasculated audience member (the slacker, nerd, loser, geek) is invited to identify with his own subordination (the repetition of a painful experience) in the person of Nick, and then, in the course of Nick’s stressful, dangerous passage through the plot, to triumph over and vicariously transcend the traumatic experience (the mastery or “compulsion”).
Of course, identification is only one aspect of a potential audience’s investment in a film. Dis-identification is equally compelling, where the protagonist or, as if often the case, the villain, becomes a surrogate for experiences that the viewer will never have, or want to have, but finds pleasure from experiencing or exploring through a surrogate. Still, the “me” and the “not me” appeal of identification and distanciation work better within a gender than across it.
Unfortunately, for 30 MINUTES OR LESS, there is no purchase place for a female audience—of any age, unless it be the sardonic, savvy cashier who calls the boys on what she presumes to be their rapine intentions. The other notable female character, Chet’s girlfriend, has only one line in the trailer, with which she ask the question that the film ostensibly has been made to answer: “What’s happened to you guys?”
What’s happened is that they manned up, found cojones, fought for dominance rather than rolled over and bared their white bellies. I do think that the core audience of 16-36 year old males (slackers and go-getters, gay and straight alike) like these stories, these situations, these relationships because they remind them of who they are already or who they can’t ever become. But this trailer hasn’t told a story for female viewers. Maybe there isn’t one, so the trailer is doing its job of keeping the wrong audience out. But then again, if it’s as funny as the blogosphere says it is, then shouldn’t it have something for everyone?
movietrailers101 by Fred Greene is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.