Holiday Movie Warning: Descendants, Young Adult Are Not the Fun Family Escapes Advertised

Death and disease are heavy subjects. But this holiday season, Hollywood is fooling audiences into buying tickets to these "comedies"

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Merie Wallace / Fox Searchlight

George Clooney and Shailene Woodley

A public service for families in search of light-hearted holiday films:

It was late on a Friday afternoon when I received an e-mail from a close friend with an urgent movie question. She had been on Fandango, just a couple seconds away from purchasing tickets to The Descendants, when the description caught her eye: “…Native islander Matt King (George Clooney) lives with his family in Hawaii. Their world shatters when a tragic accident leaves his wife in a coma…” My friend, who had lost her mother just a couple months earlier, was baffled: “I’m confused! I thought it was a quirky/funny movie about a guy who got divorced or something…the trailer and all the ads make it sound very indie/funny. but then I read this review and I was like WHHAAA?? Because, really, I don’t need to pay to watch 2 hours of that on a Friday night when I, you know, lived it a few months ago.

Having seen the film at a press screening several weeks prior to release, her note caught me off guard. Of course this was a film about a family in mourning – the wife only appears conscious in the very first scene! All the Best Actor buzz surrounding George Clooney is pegged to the way he projects grief!

But then I went back and started reviewing the trailers and TV advertisements. This is what the majority of the country knew about the film going in – the TV spot that ran most prolifically:

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No mention of an accident, of a coma, of the tears shed by both a father and daughter who are devastated by having to slowly say goodbye to the most important woman in their life. While these spots perfectly capture Clooney’s awkward sandal sprint, they all but forget to mention the movie’s central subject: Mourning.

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As I advised her to stay away, I realized this wasn’t the only example of Hollywood marketing run amok this holiday season. My friend’s e-mail about The Descendants arrived about 24 hours after I saw a screening of Young Adult, another film that’s being marketed – and nominated, by the Golden Globes – as a jolly, cynical comedy:

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Everything about this preview screams Hilariously Awkward Homecoming – from the small-town bars to the eye-rolling family dinners. What the trailer conveniently leaves out is a very public mental breakdown and the pondering of Charlize Theron’s character as to whether she’s an alcoholic. It only takes about 20 minutes of screen time to realize that yes, she is, and that Jason Reitman’s film is essentially a brutally honest character study of a woman in the process of imploding. I walked out of Young Adult perhaps more disturbed and disheartened that any other film I can remember this year.

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As I mulled over all this, I was reminded of my Thanksgiving debacle. Having seen and loved Hugo – again, at a press screening with relatively little foreknowledge – I took my wife and father-in-law to see it Thanksgiving weekend. They were game, having seen previews like this:

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Colorful and silly, capturing a smiling Hugo and his shiny toy as they apparently take a fantastic trip down the rabbit hole (twisty slides! robots that draw! under-the-sea costumes! crashing trains!), this trailer couldn’t be more deceitful in its tone or focus. When I entered the theater as a blank slate to see Hugo, I immediately fell in love with its slow and hypnotic rhythms, sympathized with Ben Kingsley’s wounded heart (he barely makes an appearance in the trailer) and was wooed by the way a depressed, sullen orphan slowly warms up thanks to his discovery of cinema. But my wife went in with such misinformed expectations that even she — someone who champions The Tree of Life — was put off by the cold detachment of the film’s opening third. The ads effectively ruined her Hugo experience.

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I realize that movie studios need to sell tickets, and comedies offer something of an easier sales pitch, but surely there are audiences interested in serious dramas too, right? In stories that go beyond tropical vacations and high school reunions to address more substantial themes like illness and death? Don’t plenty of people out there enjoy a wide array of books and TV shows that run the full gamut of human emotions? There are happy books and heavy books, sitcoms and zombie thrillers. So why are so many movies falsely positioned as whimsical, hilarious, charming?

The film critic inside me is intrigued by the ways in which misguided marketing campaigns can actually ruin the moviegoing experience for mainstream audiences. But the son, brother and husband inside me is far more worried about how deceptive marketing could ruin my holiday vibe. I want my loved ones to have fun at the movie theater this season, and I’m sure you do too. So I’m here with a simple message: If you’re looking for light-hearted family friendly movie fun, avoid The Descendants and Young Adult at all costs. Be sure people know what they’re getting into, in the case of Hugo. Take everybody to The Muppets instead.

And then after New Year’s Day, go back and see all three of the movies I’ve mentioned above, because they’re among the most sophisticated and heartfelt works of the year – not that their breezy and mundane marketing campaigns would ever indicate that.

Steven James Snyder is a Senior Editor at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @thesnydes. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page, on Twitter at @TIME and on TIME’s Tumblr.