Audiences pummeled with cheapened thrills


New Line's "Rendition" might as well have been assigned to the Witness Protection Program.

The drama about the forced interrogation of a suspected terrorist, starring Reese Witherspoon and Jake Gyllenhaal, opened last weekend to a dismal ninth-place showing of just $4.1 million. In its wake, the commentariat immediately pronounced that audiences were gun shy about any movies dealing with the politics of the Middle East, the threat of terrorism or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Perhaps.

But here's a simpler theory: "Rendition" was sold as a thriller, and this fall, there's a glut of thrillers in the marketplace, all competing for attention and most coming up short.

Just look at the movie ads that appeared in last Friday's newspapers:

The headline quote in support of "Rendition" announced: "A superb thriller," Alison Bailes, NBC's Reel Talk.

"A top-notch thriller," Larry King enthused about the sibling crime drama "We Own the Night."

"Michael Clayton," a tale of corporate corruption, was praised as "a gripping thriller" by Newsweek's David Ansen and "a smart thriller that sets your heart pumping and your mind racing" by People's Leah Rozen.

Rozen also was on record calling the Saudi Arabia-set "The Kingdom" "a gripping action thriller," while Us Weekly's Thelma Adams agreed that it's "a fast-paced and provocative thriller."

Everywhere you turned, another thriller beckoned: CBS TV's Bill Zwecker described the historical pageant "Elizabeth: The Golden Age" as "an action-packed thriller, a drama and a love story all rolled into one amazing movie"; Time's Richard Corliss judged Ben Affleck's directorial turn "Gone Baby Gone" a "tightly wound thriller that keeps you guessing"; the hit-and-run drama "Reservation Road" was described as "a deft, satisfying thriller" by Entertainment Weekly's Lisa Schwarzbaum; Rolling Stone's Peter Travers exclaimed that the London-set gangster tale "Eastern Promises" is "a mesmerizing power-point of a thriller"; and Dark Horizons' Paul Fischer decided that the very British "Sleuth" is "a masterful cat and mouse thriller."

Is it any wonder that, faced with such a bewildering onslaught of promised thrills, the two movies that have stood out from the crowd in recent weeks have been Disney's family-oriented comedy "The Game Plan" and Tyler Perry's romantic dramedy "Why Did I Get Married?" -- the season's two anti-thrillers?

Of course, not all thrillers are created equal: They shouldn't all be lumped into the same bag. Peter Berg's "The Kingdom," for example, begins as a police procedural -- a sort of "CSI: Riyadh," if you will -- before it shifts gears into a high-octane car chase. David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises" works as a fascinating anthropologic study, a look into the world of Russian immigrants in London in addition to offering up bruising hand-to-hand combat. And "Michael Clayton" essentially is a character study; George Clooney creates a portrait of a world-weary fixer at the end of his rope. While his final showdown with corporate counsel Tilda Swinton is genuinely thrilling, its thrills are more cerebral than visceral.

By hawking all these movies as generic thrillers, Hollywood marketers have taken the easy way out. Instead of promoting what makes each movie distinctive, they've tended to emphasize what makes them all sound the same. That -- and the fact so many of these movies appeal to older audiences who don't rush to the multiplex on opening weekend -- has meant that, for too many films this fall, the thrill of it all seems to be gone.