What to Expect When You're Expecting, adapted from Heidi Murkoff's best-selling self-help book, isn't what one would expect. Looking at the trailer for the star-studded project, it's easy to assume the film is yet another A-list ensemble comedy, a style that's evolved into a maligned genre all its own. But moviegoers shouldn't necessarily associate What to Expect with films like He's Just Not That Into You, Valentine's Day, and New Year's Eve, all poorly reviewed projects that felt like money-making vehicles for boatloads of familiar faces. Instead, What to Expect separates itself from the lazy A-list genre movie, thanks to a sharp, relatable screenplay penned by Heather Hach (Freaky Friday) and Shauna Cross (Whip It), who aimed for a difficult balance of comedy and drama. Turns out, you can hit the bullseye just by telling the simple truth.
Hach admits that Hollywood comedies rarely achieve honesty — a fact that compelled her to dig deep while writing What to Expect. "That's why I think movies don't work. They don't resonate," Hach tells Hollywood.com. Although the romance-driven plots of similarly designed movies took place in the real world, they bordered on fantasy. What to Expect deals with the real, and required a different approach. "We knew the challenge here was making really relatable characters that felt grounded. And I think we succeeded."
The screenwriter certainly had source material. Hach initially pitched the book in the seventh month of her actual pregnancy and thought the idea of adapting the non-fiction classic was "genius." Hach says, "There's really no more human story that's filled with drama and comedy than having a baby."
Despite the success of self-help adaptation He's Just Not That Into You, Hach says there was never a push for her to emulate the style of the 2009 film and its many successors. "We all decided, the producers and Heidi Murkoff, the author … we wanted a Love Actually feeling with a lot of different characters." Hach says. "I think not having too many characters, five couples, you have time to feel the connection. Love Actually has a lot of truth in it. [Director] Richard Curtis is so good at that." The streamlining helps — instead of feeling like a cameo-filled romp, What to Expect has a honed-in focus that helps the film's flow.
During the screenwriting process, What to Expect was eventually handed off to Cross ("like a baton in a relay") who brought her own experiences to the table. "When I was pregnant I was looking at any movie with a subplot about pregnancy because I wanted something to relate to," Cross says. "Once I started working on [the movie], I was excited because there are so many people who have kids right now. It's nice to have, every 10 or 15 years or so, something related to pregnancy."
Cross admits that the world she was entering with What to Expect was dangerous territory with its own set of handicaps, citing the negative critical reaction to movies cast in similar a vein. But the style made sense to her: "You're aware of an audience when writing this movie," she says. "I like a good milestone movie that sums up an experience we're all going to go through. And the reason I like doing the ensemble thing is because the minute you have a kid, the minute you talk to friends, you realize everyone's experience is different. It's a universal thing of becoming a parent, but everyone's experience is different."
Both writers knew that for What to Expect to work as an honest movie that appealed to broad audiences, it couldn't simply be targeted at women. "When you're pregnant or when your partner's pregnant, you're both in it together," Hach says. "We knew we didn't want a chick flick that guys would roll their eyes at. We wanted to include that vantage point." Cross echoes the sentiment: "There was sort of a group of mahjong-playing grandmothers that were commenting on the film. And I was like, 'Can we have some dudes in the movie? Because men help create the babies and they're pretty involved.' So that was super fun for me. It was a big project for me, getting the guys in there. You can't make a baby without a guy."
Amazingly, the movie does succeed in mining universal (and hysterical) comedy from a subject matter that, on the surface, may appeal strictly to women. That's thanks to the connection between the written material and the solid cast — an ensemble Cross reveals wasn't necessarily the desirable one for some. "[Producer] David [Thwaites], [Director] Kirk [Jones] and everyone involved fought really really hard for the right people in the right parts," she says. "There was an easy version that could have happened, but it was definitely fought against." Mostly so the screenwriters could trade in star-driven stunt casting for lesser-known but beloved comedians like Thomas Lennon and Rebel Wilson (Bridesmaids), actors who are known to help make films actually, you know, funny.
Cross continued to work closely with the script once the cast came on board, swapping pregnancy stories with the actors and tailoring the screenplay for each individual — not a common practice on most ensemble comedies. "Chris Rock is definitely a dad," Cross says. "He feels pretty strong about being a dad. He was almost an embarrassment of riches in how much he knew. Chris brings a lot of his own point of view. He and I both agreed that it was important that it wasn't like, 'This is horrible… ' It had to be how real parents talk. 'Today f**king sucks, but overall being a parent is kind of great.'" The screenwriter was also able to tweak Jennifer Lopez's role once she came on board. "There's something inherently relatable about her, how she can come across as a bit of an underdog. I like the irony that she's so beautiful — she's not someone you'd look at and think, 'This woman has a hard time making a kid.' So it's writing more to that." When it came to Elizabeth Banks and Wilson, Cross couldn't pen enough dialogue. "There's a great straight man thing that Rebel bounces off of Elizabeth and you keep feeding that machine."
Of course, there were interesting pregnancy stories Hach and Cross weren't able to squeeze into the movie. Hach's first draft of the screenplay included a homosexual couple looking to adopt that was later dropped in subsequent versions. When it was put in Cross' hands, the idea came back up, but was shuffled out for creative reasons: "By the time it got to me, it was the moment Modern Family was getting so huge and it felt like we were going to copy … like don't do what they're doing so well. They are so nailing it, let's not copycat it." Cross mentions there have already been talks of sequel ideas and that "[they] would definitely bring in a gay couple."
The hot-button issue of young pregnancy also surfaces in What to Expect, after Anna Kendrick's character Rosie finds herself impregnated after a casual encounter. The storyline takes its own turn for the dramatic (we won't spoil anything for you here), but don't expect What to Expect to tackle abortion — even though the screenwriters have a commitment to truth. "You kind of know who your audience is," Cross says. "Does an audience who's in the middle of experiencing pregnancy want to see a movie with abortion in it? It's tricky."
So tricky that audiences rarely see abortion on screens big or small, despite the fact that many — 22 percent of women who get pregnant, in fact — would relate. (Cross does see a recent episode of Girls as a missed opportunity: "They are on HBO, they'd have the support."). Cross also doesn't want to downplay the situation either: "As someone who has been accidentally pregnant, who didn't really plan on my pregnancy, I think there's a physical, biological thing that takes over, too," Cross says. "Kinda, 'Can I do this? Should I do this?' ... People definitely have abortions, but I don't know if this is the abortion movie. I'm so not judgmental and so pro-women getting to plan their families however they want and I'm offended by weird laws. I don't want to come across as blase seeming like every family should have a baby. It's almost like some people think that anyone who feels positive about having a kid is like some giant propaganda telling the world to have a baby. I don't feel like everyone should breed, but I do think this movie is about an experience 90 percent of those people will go through at some point."
It's these considerations and commitment to reality that make What to Expect a standout. The movie pulls back the curtain on a momentous occasion by revealing all the crazed, disturbing, wonderful events that are in store for those who find themselves prepping for a new baby. Those looking for a big genre twist may be jaded before they even get to the theater. "For some people it might be awful and cliched that they get babies at the end and the babies don't kill the parents because that would be a surprise ending," Cross jokes. "But I don't know if that's the movie I want to see when I'm pregnant. Zombie babies… different movie."
Cross may enter that territory with her next project, an adaptation of the black comedy parenting book Go the F**k to Sleep, but Hach sums up the intentions and revelations of What to Expect perfectly: "There are a lot of expectations that people have about [pregnancy]. 'Isn't it so wonderful, isn't it so glorious.' You don't know what to expect."
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In a post-Harry Potter Avatar and Lord of the Rings world the descriptors "sci-fi" and "fantasy" conjure up particular imagery and ideas. The Hunger Games abolishes those expectations rooting its alternate universe in a familiar reality filled with human characters tangible environments and terrifying consequences. Computer graphics are a rarity in writer/director Gary Ross' slow-burn thriller wisely setting aside effects and big action to focus on star Jennifer Lawrence's character's emotional struggle as she embarks on the unthinkable: a 24-person death match on display for the entire nation's viewing pleasure. The final product is a gut-wrenching mature young adult fiction adaptation diffused by occasional meandering but with enough unexpected choices to keep audiences on their toes.
Panem a reconfigured post-apocalyptic America is sectioned off into 12 unique districts and ruled under an iron thumb by the oppressive leaders of The Capitol. To keep the districts producing their specific resources and prevent them from rebelling The Capitol created The Hunger Games an annual competition pitting two 18-or-under "tributes" from each district in a battle to the death. During the ritual tribute "Reaping " teenage Katniss (Lawrence) watches as her 12-year-old sister Primrose is chosen for battle—and quickly jumps to her aid becoming the first District 12 citizen to volunteer for the games. Joined by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a meek baker's son and the second tribute Effie the resident designer and Haymitch a former Hunger Games winner-turned-alcoholic-turned-mentor Katniss rides off to The Capitol to train and compete in the 74th Annual Hunger Games.
The greatest triumph of The Hunger Games is Ross' rich realization of the book's many worlds: District 12 is painted as a reminiscent Southern mining town haunting and vibrant; The Capitol is a utopian metropolis obsessed with design and flair; and The Hunger Games battleground is a sprawling forest peppered with Truman Show-esque additions that remind you it's all being controlled by overseers. The small-scale production value adds to the character-first approach and even when the story segues to larger arenas like a tickertape parade in The Capitol's grand Avenue of Tributes hall it's all about Katniss.
For fans the script hits every beat a nearly note-for-note interpretation of author Suzanne Collins' original novel—but those unfamiliar shouldn't worry about missing anything. Ross knows his way around a sharp screenplay (he's the writer of Big Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and he's comfortable dropping us right into the action. His characters are equally as colorful as Panem Harrelson sticking out as the former tribute enlivened by the chance to coach winners. He's funny he's discreet he's shaded—a quality all the cast members share. As a director Ross employs a distinct often-grating perspective. His shaky cam style emphasizes the reality of the story but in fight scenarios—and even simple establishing shots of District 12's goings-on—the details are lost in motion blur.
But the dread of the scenario is enough to make Hunger Games an engrossing blockbuster. The lead-up to the actual competition is an uncomfortable and biting satire of reality television sports and everything that commands an audience in modern society. Katniss' brooding friend Gale tells her before she departs "What if nobody watched?" speculating that carnage might end if people could turn away. Unfortunately they can't—forcing Katniss and Peeta to become "stars" of the Hunger Games. The duo are pushed to gussy themselves up put on a show and play up their romance for better ratings. Lawrence channels her reserved Academy Award-nominated Winter's Bone character to inhabit Katniss' frustration with the system. She's great at hunting but she doesn't want to kill. She's compassionate and considerate but has no interest in bowing down to the system. She's a leader but she knows full well she's playing The Capitol's game. Even with 23 other contestants vying for the top spot—like American Idol with machetes complete with Ryan Seacrest stand-in Caesar Flickerman (the dazzling Stanley Tucci)—Katniss' greatest hurdle is internal. A brave move for a movie aimed at a young audience.
By the time the actual Games roll around (the movie clocks in at two and a half hours) there's a need to amp up the pace that never comes and The Hunger Games loses footing. Katniss' goal is to avoid the action hiding in trees and caves waiting patiently for the other tributes to off themselves—but the tactic isn't all that thrilling for those watching. Luckily Lawrence Hutcherson and the ensemble of young actors still deliver when they cross paths and particular beats pack all the punch an all-out deathwatch should. PG-13 be damned the film doesn't skimp on the bloodshed even when it comes to killing off children. The Hunger Games bites off a lot for the first film of a franchise and does so bravely and boldly. It may not make it to the end alive but it doesn't go down without a fight.