The summer movie season tends to be thought of as a big, vast, noisy, expensive parade — a monolith of fun. The movies, before they come out, have an aura of invincibility. Most of them have been designed to be rockets to the other side of the box-office rainbow, and each week, when another rocket or two (or three) gets launched, the grosses cast their own aura: “Look, up in the air! It’s a smash! It’s a winner! It’s Superhit!” The breathless ritual reporting of those weekend tallies reflects something much deeper than the fact that people are obsessed with Hollywood accounting. Those box office revenues — or, at least, this is our dream of them — go back to the numerological magic created when the original Star Wars broke all records to become a rocket to the moon. The brain-bending popularity of Star Wars was part of its meaning: Because it was such a transcendent hit, it was the club that literally everyone was in. And now, each week of the summer, people go to a movie in the hopes that they’ll be joining the biggest movie club on the block.
But each week, all those numbers, all that bigness, all those CGI effects that are now so commonplace it would be a misnomer to call them “special,” have a way of masquerading what a busy, quirky patchwork the contemporary summer movie season really has become. Counterprogramming — the release of smaller movies to play to an audience of adults that still wants to see something besides comic books — is now built into the summer-movie DNA. It’s become such a standard feature that no one even thinks twice about it. And what that means is that the image of the summer movie season is, in many ways, far less adventurous than the reality. In that spirit, I’d like to offer a few highly personalized and idiosyncratic observations about what transpired on our movie screens this summer, all as a way of seeing what went right, what went wrong, and what this summer can tell us about the state of Hollywood.
The thing that superhero movies now need: an injection of freakishness. Earlier this summer, I griped in the pages of EW about “superhero fatigue,” and I stand by the complaint, since superheroes, by definition, should feel special. When there’s a new one every week, it wears down the genre. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t like some of the comic-book movies that came out. Thor, as directed by Kenneth Branagh, had an elegant prankishness, and I enjoyed the way that Captain America went back to the cornball braveheart Boy Scout squareness of the character’s Superman-meets-Uncle Sam World War II roots. Yet I can’t say that either of those films took up much of an afterlife in my imagination. It’s telling, isn’t it, that the greatest comic-book movie ever made, the psycho noir The Dark Knight, had such a profoundly tormented, messed-up, maybe even half-crazy super-anti-hero at its center. And that, I think, is what our comic-book movies now need more of. That freakishness is drama, and on balance, it’s probably truer to the spirit of the old comics than an unvarying diet of wholesome studly kick-ass bravura. It’s true that the decent, if top-heavy, X-Men: First Class featured a whole roster of “misfit” super-geeks. But apart from Michael Fassbender’s darkly intense performance, the young actors in that movie looked about as alienated as the cast of Gossip Girl. Here’s hoping that next summer, movies like The Amazing Spider-Man and The Avengers know how to get their freak on.
The Tree of Life is an extraordinary movie. Should it have been a bigger hit? Terrence Malick’s beautiful, startling, pinpoint drama about a family in the 1950s, as filtered through the director’s cosmic-religioso meditation on the formation of the earth (a vision that, if you think about it, effortlessly reconciles evolution and God for our time), is the kind of movie the James Joyce of Dubliners might have made if only he’d had Brad Pitt and a handheld camera. To me, it was the most haunting movie of the summer — but it was also polarizing. Some people loved it; some walked out in a huff during the visionary prelude. When I learned that a movie as original as The Tree of Life was going to be released in prime summer time, on the last weekend of May, I thought: Brilliant! Put it out there! On the strength of the reviews, and on the back of Pitt’s justly acclaimed, deeper-than-he’s-ever-gone performance as a tough-love ’50s martinet dad with a heart of mystery, the movie seemed like it had every chance to work as superb counterprogramming. The secret of Malick as a filmmaker is that he is, deep down, an avidly conventional storyteller drawn to unconventional techniques. The movie was really no more “challenging” than The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and if Pitt drove that gimmicky clunker to mega-hit status, then surely he could draw audiences to Malick’s most celebrated film since Days of Heaven.
But a funny thing happened on the way to The Tree of Life‘s modest, if not downright underwhelming, $12.6 million gross. The people at Fox Searchlight, the reigning studio specialty division, decided that the movie should be marketed as an art film: slowly, cautiously, and — just perhaps — self-defeatingly. Instead of using Pitt’s presence to ramp the picture up to mainstream gotta-see status, the way 2001: A Space Odyssey (which this movie sometimes recalls) became mainstream 43 years ago, they missed the opportunity. I realize the conventional wisdom is that The Tree of Life found the audience that it was meant to find, and that “ordinary” Americans “don’t want to see a movie like that.” But my point is that it’s exactly that kind of thinking that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. I can’t help but wonder: What if, on that last weekend of May, The Tree of Life had opened on 3,000 screens? It might have been what Fox Searchlight never quite had the gusto to envision it as: an event.
The state of 3D: Does anyone really like it anymore? After writing a number of blog posts on the subject, I figured I’d take the summer off from 3D commentary. I didn’t even bother to mention it in most of my reviews of 3D movies. One could argue that that’s irresponsible for a critic. Really, though, how many times can you write the sentence, “The 3D isn’t just bad, it’s virtually non-existent; it would have been more or less the same movie in 2D,” without wearing out your readers and yourself? The 3D “revolution” is, of course, about to get a prestige shot in the arm, with the upcoming release of Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin. I certainly hope the images in those movies blow us all away, but the reality that more or less everyone has now caught up to is that Avatar, the movie that was supposed to change our whole feeling about 3D, ended up raising the bar so high that it made run-of-the-mill 3D movies into even more of a darkened-image, who needs this? annoyance than they might otherwise have seemed. (Every time I put on those glasses and a 3D-as-marketing-ploy potboiler like Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides starts rolling, I feel like I’ve been gypped and betrayed.) This year, audiences with pinched pocketbooks began to steer away from 3D. To me, the current attitude is perfectly captured by the trailer I just saw, at a weekend matinee, for Shark Night 3D. At the end of the trailer, one of those cheesy-imperious, low-voice-of-the-devil, 1970s-horror-style trailer narrators came on and intoned the words “Shark Night 3D!” Followed by the unintentionally hilarious “Also showing in 2D!” It was a de facto admission of defeat, and the audience roared. They knew, as the film’s producers apparently did as well, that being gouged is no added dimension of fun.
The most delectable indie crossover hit of the season: Beginners. When a “little” movie that deserves to get out there truly gets out there, it’s reason to applaud. This one, starring Ewan McGregor as the most charming of commitmentphobes, who learns, near the end of his father’s life, that the father (Christopher Plummer) was gay and spent 44 years of marriage in the closet (even as he loved his wife deeply), reminded me of a certain kind of movie that thrived in the ’70s — the psychological comedy as tossed-off post-Godardian ramble, typified by Paul Mazursky’s Blume in Love (1973). In her EW review, Lisa wrote: “The movie darts, dreams, and sometimes seems to dance.” A perfect description of a movie that teeters, with delicacy, between unvoiceable pain and the kind of love that only blossoms with the years. Beginners is still playing, and so before it hits DVD and Netflix, you may still have the chance to relish Mike Mills’ visually airy, time-leap storytelling and the fantastic performances of McGregor, Plummer, and Mélanie Laurent.
The most dispiriting hit of the season: Bad Teacher. A one-joke, naughty-inept black comedy in which Cameron Diaz stars as the most dislikable character of the year (imagine one of the horrible bosses in Horrible Bosses…as the protagonist!) might seem to be a candidate for quick oblivion. But when the trailer is shot to make the movie look like a piece of wet-T-shirt exploitation, it’s no wonder that young men lined up in droves. A lot of them took their dates, too: Bad Teacher isn’t funny, but it’s just sneaky enough to prod girls into thinking that Diaz’ sexpot misanthrope might be a useful role model.
Steve Carell has become a new version of the old Woody Allen. The core plot of the terrifically witty and light-fingered Crazy, Stupid, Love — recently separated man gets lessons in how to pick up women — bears a superficial resemblance to Will Smith’s Hitch, but the movie that really invented that gambit was Play It Again, Sam (1972), in which Woody Allen got tips and tales on seduction from Humphrey Bogart. The thing is, Carell now has the kind of everyman-neurotic vitality and cultural connection that Allen did 40 years ago. He’s astonishingly good at playing sheepish, lovelorn losers who still have it in them to become winners, and this is Carell’s fullest performance to date. He was overshadowed, to a degree, by the hilarious cocktail-stud nonchalance of Ryan Gosling (the rare totally serious actor who can be as romantic as he is fascinating), and the whole movie was treated by the press a bit derisively, as if a romantic comedy with this much verve and intelligence and sparkle is something to take for granted. It’s not.
Documentaries keep proving that reality is the ultimate counterprogramming. The highest grossing documentary of the year played to audiences all summer long: Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, with its murky, privileged visions of handheld cameras peering around stalagmites to show us the oldest cave paintings ever discovered. But it wasn’t only Herzog — this season, the terrific documentaries just kept on coming. Tabloid, Senna, Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, Page One: Inside the New York Times, Buck, The Interrupters, Magic Trip, If a Tree Falls, Life in a Day, Turtle: The Incredible Journey, El Bulli, Hey Boo, Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop…the list goes on. Of course, the overwhelming majority of moviegoers will never have the opportunity to see these films in theaters, but the fact that they’re being made, and getting out there, and that they’ll have a life long after their theatrical run, is a testament to how deeply ingrained in our movie universe the wide-awake drama of nonfiction has become.
It came out a little too early to be a “summer movie,” but still… Bridesmaids, released May 13, is for me the comedy of the year. It had more laughs, more soul, and more indelible scenes, and it announced Kristen Wiig as a major Hollywood player. May she continue to co-write screenplays, and give performances, that are this madly inspired.
Cars 2 is the first unadulterated Pixar misfire. One of the most astounding things about Pixar is the astonishing consistency of its track record. Not every one of the studio’s digitally animated features is great, but even the shaggier, more modest tyke-friendly ones — like, say, Monsters, Inc. — seem to know their just-wanna-have-fun limitations. But Cars 2 is a movie so stuffed with “fun” that it went right off the rails. What on earth was the gifted director-mogul John Lasseter thinking — that he wanted kids to come out of this movie was more ADD? Cars 2 is a marvelous-looking contraption, all micro-detailed Tokyo neon and metallic super-shine, but the movie is so damn busy that it never finds its soul. On top of that, the decision to put Larry the Cable Guy’s drawling, buck-toothed doofus rust-mobile Tow Mater front and center seemed based almost completely on the character’s popularity as a piece of tie-in merchandise. Letting this toy wag the dog is the most egregious mistake that Pixar ever made.
Can we please stop having double standards at the box office? It’s fine to say that a movie succeeded or failed, but the fun of the numbers is that they don’t lie — so why should they be subjected to post-game bias? When Thor opened at $66.5 Million, it was greeted with a perfectly respectful yawn, but the $54 million grossed by Rise of the Planet of the Apes was treated as some sort of expectation-smashing, rise-of-the-rebel-blockbuster surprise. To which I say, really? The latter movie had a bigger star than Thor did — in James Franco, and also in Andy Serkis, who still carries his Lord of the Rings karma. It also had as gorilla-size a pedigree as any comic-book franchise (just see the $180 million grossed by Tim Burton’s lousy Planet of the Apes remake back in 2001). The trouble with the “expectations” game is that it’s too often played by studio executives to spin the results of their labors. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is doing just fine, but to extol its success as if it had taken the marketplace by storm is to pretend that movies which the press liked a lot less (like, say, The Hangover Part II or Kung Fu Panda 2) were less word-of-mouth driven in their box-office glory.
Fantasy is fine, but have we run out of monsters? The best thing about J.J. Abrams’ Super 8 was the way it re-created that breathless ’70s-Spielberg atmosphere of anticipation. It primed you with curiosity to see what those kids — equally primed — had uncovered. But when the answer to that mystery turned out to be yet another digital monster with scary humongous jaws, I kept thinking that it didn’t matter how intricately Abrams had worked out the plot, or how he’d even made the creature sympathetic. Bottom line: I’d basically seen that monster before. The same way that I’d seen the extraterrestrials in Cowboys & Aliens before. One way or another, they all looked like they’d come out of an Alien sequel from 20 years ago. Which leads me to wonder: Are there any more monsters left in our collective id? Because I’ve frankly grown weary of looking at this one.
It’s time for Jon Favreau to direct a small movie again. Speaking of Cowboys & Aliens, it’s getting easy to forget that Favreau started out as the co-star and co-writer of Swingers — and that when he directed Iron Man, he kept the action loose and human-scale, keyed to Robert Downey Jr.’s breezy verbal assault. But Favreau, fueled by his success, seems to have gotten addicted to bloat. It’s easy to see a link between the frazzled too-muchness of Iron Man 2 and the concept-by-numbers gizmoid deadness of Cowboys & Aliens. Does Favreau really want to direct F/X traffic for a living? Or does he want to go back to tapping his true gifts and making a movie that doesn’t reduce actors to objects?
The Help rewrote the end of summer by breaking all the rules. Every year, one serious drama, or maybe two, buoyed by the awards-season spotlight, breaks through and becomes a smash hit (the way that, say, The King’s Speech did last year). If it’s based on a highly popular novel, that can help, but only up to a point. Yet Disney, with complete confidence and skill, released The Help into the high silly season of early August, and audiences, God bless them, have turned out to see it like a movie they were hungry for. An ensemble drama about domestic race relations in the Deep South in the early ’60s, with a cast of wonderful actresses but scarcely a major star (the closest the movie has to that is the still-up-and-coming Emma Stone), The Help is everything a summer movie is not. Except that it’s now ruling so remarkably that it’s just about rewriting the rules of what a summer movie can be. We can only hope that next summer, those rules stay rewritten.
So what struck you most about the movies this summer — or about any one movie? What was your favorite? Your biggest disappointment? And what, if anything, about summer movies would you like to see change?
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman