Explaining Without Spoiling: Julia Roberts As A Case Study

Clive Owen and Julia Roberts in 'Duplicity'

Duplicity: It's a better movie than you might think; is that saying too much? Universal Pictures hide caption

toggle caption Universal Pictures

Duplicity was a better movie than I thought it was going to be, and less predictable than I thought it was going to be.

And with that, some people would conclude I have said too much.

"You can easily guess what the 'predictable' elements are," they would reason, "so you have revealed that at least one of those predictable elements will be upended in some way, which gives away something about the ending, and you should not give away anything about the ending, at least not without spoiler warnings, because now I know that of the three or four basic things I expect from this movie, one of them won't happen, so I know something about what will happen, so you have ruined it for me."

"Well, have you seen it?" I might ask them.

"Are you kidding?" they might well respond. "No way. I assumed it was going to be totally predictable."

Therein lies the puzzle.

After the jump: Let us use an older movie as an example of a very current problem...

It's very easy to review or recommend movies where the quality is in the execution. You don't have to be surprised by the basic unfolding of Milk, for instance, in order to enjoy it. In fact, everybody knows the story, so it's easy to explain the merits and demerits: the quality of the writing, the acting, the direction, and so forth.

But let's reach further back (and into a completely different genre) to another Julia Roberts vehicle.

Twelve years before Duplicity, there was My Best Friend's Wedding. And while it's no one's idea of a masterpiece of filmmaking...

Okay, wait. SPOILER WARNING. I am about to spoil the ending of My Best Friend's Wedding, which came out 12 years ago.

Again, while it's no one's idea of a masterpiece, what makes the movie interesting is that it subverts certain expectations that existed in the world of Julia Roberts movies at that time.

The idea that there would be a movie where Julia Roberts does not get the guy? Pretty surprising, just on its own.

But the notion that the mad dash to break up the wedding of the person you've only just realized you're in love with would be revealed as ... selfish, destructive, mean, and idiotic? That's even more surprising, and it really was an interesting upending of certain rom-com conventions.

The movie doesn't even end with Roberts catching the eye of some fella at the reception — as I was sure it would — to hint that she will fall in love before too long. Again, it's not Casablanca, but it was thought-provoking.

But if you were reviewing the movie at the time, and you thought that surprise was what was most interesting about it, how would you convey that information in a way that helped people decide whether to see it but didn't ruin the experience?

"If you're not seeing this movie because you assume Julia Roberts will happily get her man, don't worry, because she totally doesn't! And now you ... know what happens and maybe don't need to see it, so ... sorry."

In the world of the spoiler-drenched Internet, you can find out the entire plot of every movie that's out now and just about every movie that's ever been. There are entire sites that exist just to tell you what happens in movies you don't want to see, but about which you're curious. (I won't lie; I did this with Seven Pounds. Sorry, Will Smith.)

If you frequent discussion boards about television, they usually have intricate spoiler policies to make sure people don't accidentally pass along the gossip about upcoming episodes. Still, in most recent seasons of high-profile shows like Survivor, you can get a good idea of how the season is going to go, if you know where to look.

This has made many people even more sensitive about being spoiled than they were before. When it comes to upcoming TV episodes, some people don't want to know about guest stars, some people don't want to know what's in the previews or the ads, and some people don't even want to know episode titles. They prefer to exist in sensory-deprivation tanks when it comes to anything that hasn't aired yet.

It's almost impossible to do this with movies — to go into a movie knowing nothing about it. The hype machines are simply too loud and, in many cases, not at all careful about spoiling the plot. (You've undoubtedly seen trailers like this yourself.)

The only time I've achieved a total information vacuum in recent memory was when I saw the animated and live-action Oscar-nominated short films. It was truly delightful not to know anything.

But the only reason it worked was that I had the nominations to use as a filter. Otherwise, how would I have known to see those films, not knowing anything — including what they were about?

It's a really vexing problem. Duplicity has some interestingly subversive moments as well, and those moments have provocative ties to the times we're living in.

Ideally, those moments should unfold organically while you're watching the movie. But if you don't know they exist, you might be less likely to see it at all.

Is there a way to do this? Is there a way, with a movie that gets some of its value from the fact that it goes in an unexpected direction, to identify that as a selling point without telling people what they don't want to know? I'm seriously asking; I haven't figured it out myself.



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