These days, a lot of the movies that get singled out for awards are described in terms that make them sound — often unfairly — less than commercial. They are “serious,” “dark,” “adult,” “quirky,” “cerebral.” And, quite often, “small.” Actually, though, the most telling thing about them is that they’re unclassifiable. They may be about love or war or 3-D alien forest natives, but what they are not, as a rule, is genre movies. (If anything, they’re genre-busting movies.) I had a reader take me to task for calling Up in the Air a romantic comedy, and she was right, but what the heck do you call it? A happy-go-lucky-bachelor-meets-the-economic- crisis-and-finds-love-but-not-really comedy? And Inglourious Basterds, while indisputably a World War II movie, is really, in every frame, a Quentin Tarantino film (more than an auteur, he’s his own genre, his own form), which means that the movie is really two things at once, and therefore unique enough to transcend genre imperatives.
This weekend, however, the moviegoing audience was lured by three pictures that play, quite happily, by orthodox genre rules. Each of them filled a niche (in one case, a fairly outsize niche), and that translated into success. I suppose you could say that Shutter Island, in its way, has a touch of that form-straddling uniqueness I was talking about, yet quite honestly, without the opening credits, I don’t think I ever would have guessed that its director is Martin Scorsese. In its strong second weekend, the film has continued to play to audiences eager to see a mind-bendy mystery-thriller with sprinkles of horror-film dread. I certainly think that it’s the closest thing to a higher-popcorn genre exercise that Scorsese has ever directed (Cape Fear looks like Taxi Driver by comparison), and that perception could well end up pushing it past the $132 million made by The Departed to render it the top-grossing movie of his career.
Kevin Smith’s Cop Out, with its guns and buddy banter, is as much of a pure genre offering as megaplex movies get, and that makes it a major gear shift in Smith’s career, especially given that the film connected with audiences. It’s not as if he was stuck in the indie ghetto before — his most successful movies, like Dogma (1999) and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001), made $30 million apiece — but considering that he didn’t write Cop Out, it opens the door to Smith redefining himself as a different brand of filmmaker; potentially, it sets him up as a major studio player. If you want to get a fascinating X-ray into Smith’s thinking, check out Patrick Goldstein’s interview with him on the Los Angeles Times blog, in which Smith says some extremely candid things about what brought him to this juncture of his career.
Then, of course, there’s The Crazies, which might just as well have been called Generic Zombie Thriller Freak-Out of the Month. In a world where the official stamp of genre reliability now rules, no genre can be counted on to satisfy the consumer needs it provokes as perfectly as the horror film. Blood, shock, rabid stalking humanoids, good actors (Timothy Olyphant, Radha Mitchell) slumming, sudden booms on the soundtrack, the threat of power-tool mutilation: The Crazies serves up all of these things, so it hardly matters if the movie isn’t very interesting or well-made. People came out to see it because they knew in their guts that the last thing a horror movie has to be is good to deliver the goods.