Socially conscious storytelling took a major hit to the groin this weekend when Jackass 3D, the franchise’s latest compilation of dangerous stunts performed by idiots, gobbled up $50 million at the domestic box office, giving it the biggest opening weekend in the U.S. since Inception back in July. We’re already a few weeks into Hollywood’s serious season, and while intelligent movies like Easy A, Secretariat, The Social Network, The Town, and Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps are doing respectable business, most have struggled to earn over the course of several weeks what Jackass grabbed in 72 hours.
Despite glimmers of hope that dramas were making a modest comeback, stupidity once again conquers all in the American cinematic marketplace. But why? Obviously there’s not much use looking for deeper meanings in the popularity of Jackass, which is basically an R-rated riff on America’s Funniest Home Videos; Americans dig watching other Americans get hurt. This sort of content is all very “Rome before the fall,” but it’s not exactly news that schadenfraude is a powerful marketing tool. The real enigma is why intelligent movies aren’t perceived as legitimate alternatives to cinematic junkfood. Based strictly on box-office numbers, it seems that most U.S. moviegoers stay home unless something big and stupid opens at the multiplex. And yet based on more ephemeral measurements like critical reception, intelligent movies earn more respect than pandering garbage like Jackass. So why don’t viewers celebrate admirable work by purchasing tickets for dramas?
Having recently watched two very sincere new dramatic films, both of which are significant contenders in this year’s Oscars derby, I think I’ve come up with an explanation. I call it the impotence of being earnest. Not only do straightforward dramatic films lack the eye-popping trailer moments that get moviegoers excited about buying tickets, the movies with the best intentions sometimes play as condescendingly as I-told-you-so lectures. And even though I believe audiences are capable of enjoying edifying entertainment, nobody likes sitting through self-righteous sermons.
First up is Conviction, the Hilary Swank drama currently struggling in limited release. It’s the real-life story of a young Massachusetts woman who, over the course of 20 years, sacrificed everything to prove the innocence of her older brother, a man jailed for a murder he didn’t commit until DNA evidence exonerated him. Given Swank’s erratic box-office record and the fact that this sort of subject matter is usually handled by TV movies, the financial deck is pretty well stacked against Conviction. Worse still, the thing that makes the movie laudable might also be the thing that makes it box-office poison.
While Conviction is somewhat absorbing because of wall-to-wall great acting (by Swank, Minnie Driver, Peter Gallagher, Melissa Leo, Juliette Lewis, Sam Rockwell), it’s also completely prefabricated. Everything in the movie is designed to spark emotional uplift when the ending arrives, and viewers already know the ending before the movie starts. Miscarriages of justice are horrible. Got it. Any form of communication that hammers a point people already grasp is a lecture, so despite the skill with which the film was made, I’m sure there’s a large segment of the audience that will feel as if nothing in the movie can surprise them.
So even though I’m not steering people away from Conviction, which is a noble endeavor by talented professionals-far better that makes money than Jackass-I get why general audiences aren’t excited by the prospect of movies like Conviction. I get why sincere dramas are impotent at the box office.
While still thinking about the commercial challenges facing Conviction, I caught a pre-release screening of The Company Men, which opens in limited release on Friday. The movie caught a bit of buzz at Sundance earlier this year because of its amazing cast: Ben Affleck, Maria Bello, Chris Cooper, Kevin Costner, Rosemary DeWitt, Tommy Lee Jones. Craig T. Nelson. It’s also the feature directorial debut of big-time TV producer John Wells (ER, Third Watch, The West Wing). Just as I don’t want to drive business away from Conviction, I don’t want to impede the progress of The Company Men. It’s a worthwhile movie, and I hope it does well.
Having said that, The Company Men is a perfect example of the impotence of being earnest. It’s a ripped-from-the-headlines story about a group of characters affected by corporate downsizing, and it digs deep into the grotesque imbalance in American industry: Those who work the hardest enjoy the least benefits, and those who eliminate jobs are rewarded the most. Focusing on an imaginary conglomerate called GTX, writer-director Wells explores the slow demise of the company’s shipbuilding division, a smart narrative choice because, as one character says, “American heavy manufacturing is dead.” Wells isn’t so much concerned with how the U.S. got into this predicament, but with what people can do to improve matters.
The problem the movie faces, and why it’s such a good illustration of my point, is that it’s schematic. Affleck’s character is an ambitious salesman, exactly the sort of go-getter professional any American company should value, but he’s sent packing. Cooper plays a late-career executive thrown out on his ass close to age 60, meaning he has almost zero chance of replacing his six-figure salary. And Jones plays a millionaire board member who grows a conscience watching one respected employee after another kicked to the curb. Costner, once again recruited to incarnate the soul of blue-collar America, is thrown into the mix as a contractor who watches corporate shenanigans from the sidelines while he makes an honest living with his hands.
For my taste, the politics of the movie couldn’t be stronger, excoriating the unconscionable behavior of greedy CEOs and wondering how the ship of American industry can possibly be righted in an age of globalization. But the paint-by-numbers assembly of the movie jarred me, especially since Wells is so conscientious about writing believable characters and credible dialogue. The whole enterprise is dubious because it’s like an essay proving a thesis: If American industry can re-learn how to value workers, then American industry will become competitive again. You can smell the Big Idealistic Message a mile away. The challenge the movie faces is persuading people to listen to a thoughtful discourse about a subject they already understand. I mean, does anyone out there in a U.S. with double-digit employment still think American industry values workers properly?
Having said that, I’d sure rather debate the merits of The Company Men, which tries to do something with genuine sociological value, than spend a millisecond thinking about the morons in Jackass using dental floss tied to a Lamborghini to extract a tooth, which is apparently a “highlight” of Jackass 3D.
But I’m apparently in the minority, because sincerity doesn’t seem to sell anymore. The Social Network is a terrific movie examining the rise of one of America’s most successful new-media enterprises, but even with spectacular reviews, it’s not doing blockbuster business. Secretariat is an old-fashioned feel-good movie at a time when most people could use a smile, and yet its performance is soft. Conviction is slow out of the gate. And I bet if you polled ten people in a middle-America shopping mall, none would be aware of The Company Men. I’ll be (happily) shocked if The Company Men gets anywhere near $50 million at the box office before leaving theaters.
And yet against this backdrop of noble underperformers, Jackass 3D made more in its opening weekend than the average well-intentioned drama can expect to make in its entire theatrical run. The kicker, of course, is that viewers seem to avoid sincere dramatic films because they think they’ve seen it all before. But flying excrement in 3-D? Somehow that’s a novelty worth the price of admission.