A Dog and His Boy

Good morning, class. Today we'll be studying the laws of probability. Let's begin our lesson with a word problem that will help you understand the basic concept.

Pretend we're making a movie. We want to calculate the likelihood that our movie will be a dog. Here's our picture's premise: A boy who feels unappreciated by his workaholic parents declares himself a free agent and travels the globe searching for a new set of folks who will treat him better. Pretty thin, huh? Let's assign our plot a high likelihood of failure, say four to one in favor of its falling on its face.

Our movie is titled North. North is also the boy's name. Do you know any children named North? Or for that matter, South, East, or West? Me neither. No wonder the kid wants to ditch his parents. Audiences should expect more from a title like North than a reference to an arbitrary and unlikely character name, especially when that name has no dramatic payoff (like Rain Man) and isn't goofy enough to arouse people's curiosity (like Forrest Gump). A bad title is a big handicap at the box office; whoever thought of North cut our movie's chances for success in half.

The probability of our movie's failing has now climbed to eight to one (it is eight times as likely to fail as it is to succeed). We calculate that by multiplying our plot's contribution to North's chances for flopping (4:1) times our title's (2:1). We will continue to analyze our film's components in this fashion, giving individual odds as well as a running total.

Our movie is being written by Alan Zweibel, a veteran TV comedy writer. Oooh, that's bad, kids. He's never written a movie before. He worked on Saturday Night Live in the early years when it was still funny, and created and produced It's Garry Shandling's Show, so he's not a total loser. We'll be kind and make Mr. Zweibel's screenplay a 2:1 shot. We're up to 16:1 overall.

Casting is critical. The right actor in the right role can salvage an otherwise lame movie. Sometimes people will see a movie and enjoy it just because a great actor (like Al Pacino) or a not-so-great-but-very-popular one (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is the star. Unfortunately, our movie stars neither Mr. Pacino nor Mr. Schwarzenegger.

There are some actors whose presence virtually ensures a movie is a waste of time. Usually, they got their start on TV. In fact, many of them are alumni of the same show, the one Zweibel once wrote for, Saturday Night Live. Dan Aykroyd and Jon Lovitz are cases in point. Over his inexplicably lengthy career, Mr. Aykroyd has averaged four insufferable performances for every decent one; Mr. Lovitz has fared slightly better at a mere three to one. Combined, they rocket North's probability of failure into triple digits at 192:1.

North is directed by Rob Reiner. This is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact at first glance it would seem to be a very good omen. Mr. Reiner's first movie was a classic, This Is Spinal Tap. Subsequent efforts such as The Sure Thing, Stand by Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally..., Misery, and A Few Good Men were not in Spinal Tap's league, but neither were they out-and-out bilge. By Hollywood standards, they were fairly worthy efforts. So it would appear, after a superficial analysis of the director's record, that Rob Reiner at the helm might lower our dog index substantially. Ahh, but wait.

Mr. Reiner is a former TV actor (you're probably too young to remember All in the Family, but perhaps your parents mentioned it to you). And he has loaded his cast with TV actors (Mr. Aykroyd and Mr. Lovitz are joined by Seinfeld's Jason Alexander and Julia Louis-Dreyfus as North's folks, as well as Alan Rachins, Abe Vigoda, Faith Ford, and John Ritter in supporting roles). His screenplay was written by a TV writer. The plot is TV-movie-of-the-week fodder. The project has "small screen" written all over it.

That is a bad sign. Making matters worse, this hasn't exactly been a banner year for onetime sit-com stars turned movie directors. Richie Cunningham's The Paper was as stale as yesterday's news, and Laverne de Fazio's Renaissance Man was so one-dimensional that Marky Mark's acting was one of the film's highlights. Meathead's timing is awful. Mr. Reiner's name on the marquee is, at best, a mixed blessing, which means North is still 192 times more likely to bark than it is to wag its tail.

What's that? You're getting tired of this exercise? The possibility of our film's succeeding either artistically or commercially is beginning to seem so remote that you want to move on to another example? Hang in there. We're almost through. We'll skim through the rest of the material.

Let's see. Bruce Willis, another actor with a TV pedigree, plays North's guardian angel-voice of reason while dressed in a humiliating pink bunny costume. What self-respecting youngster would take advice from a grown man in a rabbit suit, especially one with Hudson Hawk on his resume?

Mr. Willis has been a busy bunny this year. Striking Distance struck out, but hopes are higher for Mr. Willis's work in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction. Rumor has it the actor appears fully, frontally nude in Color of Night. Some may praise him for putting his balls on the line, but we see it as overexposure. Mr. Willis needs a hit badly to restore him to his post-Die Hard status. His desperation is palpable. His presence doubles the film's likelihood of ending up in the pound: 384:1.

North's visit with wealthy prospective parents in Texas occasions a lame Best Little Whorehouse in Texas-style song-and-dance interlude that buttresses the suspicion that at some point no one involved with this project had a clue what they were shooting for. Not since the short-lived TV series Cop Rock has a musical sequence felt so out of place. Its only useful purpose is to give us some insight into how horrible James L. Brooks's I'll Do Anything must have been before he cut out the musical numbers. At least Mr. Brooks (another TV veteran) had the good business sense to radically re-edit his film after test-preview audiences booed it. North suffered disastrous test screenings as well, delaying the film's opening for months. But for some mysterious reason, even with all that extra time to mull things over, Mr. Reiner left in the musical number. It's the disorienting nadir of a film that combines the high drama of Sesame Street and the scintillating comedic sensibility of Coneheads.

In what passes for subtle humor in our example, North's parents keel over and lapse into simultaneous comas upon learning of their son's decision to leave them. They remain comatose for the better part of the movie. Surely in real life a director with Mr. Reiner's experience would recognize how closely this condition might parallel his audience's sorry state of affairs and take drastic steps to prevent it from happening. But not in North's case. Triple the probability of failure: 1152:1.

That's pretty much it, class. Using our advanced cinema handicapping skills in conjunction with our knowledge of probabilities, we can reasonably conclude that the odds against audiences going North for the summer exceed 1000:1. Thank goodness this is only a theoretical example and not a real motion picture. After all, no one would be stupid enough to invest in a long shot like that, would they?


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >