When Is ‘Bad’ Really BAD?

This weekend, the internet has been a’buzz with commentary over Joe Queenan’s article in the Wall Street Journal entitled “The Worst Movie Year Ever?”. In it, the noted humorist and cultural critic blasts 2010, labeling the cinematic season as one featuring “absolutely nothing you want to see.” He then goes on to chide obvious targets like Sex and the City 2 and Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore while semi-championing indie offerings like The Kids Are All Right (“arguably the most heartwarming lesbian romantic comedy ever” he adds, while warning, “whatever its merits, it’s no Sideways) and Get Low. Perhaps even more telling, he argues that Dinner for Schmucks is destined to be the year’s worst, supporting said claim by arguing that the 1998 French original was “brilliant”.

While his logic is as flawed as the aforementioned Francis Veber farce, Queenan is entitled to hate whatever he wants. He takes well-aimed swipes at an industry that keeps pushing the supposedly popular Jennifer Aniston and Sarah Jessica Parker on an uncaring public, giggles over the desire to place “real” actors – Adrien Brody, Liam Neeson, Jake Gyllenhaal – in action roles, and makes the by now clichéd point that Hollywood loves sequels, comic book superheroes, and low brow comedy. At certain points in his screed, you simply want to sit up and scream “DUH”! A decade ago, we had such simmering stink bombs as How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle, Bedazzled, and Red Planet. There were also numerous follow-ups (Mission Impossible II, Scream 3, 102 Dalmatians) and questionable casting choices.

In fact, one could easily take each year since the blockbuster went ballistic and argue that, at this point in the motion picture process, said seven months sucked. For example, my picks for the Top Ten Films of 2009 saw three came out in the summer (#1 – Inglourious Basterds, #7 – Star Trek, and #9 – Up) while two were from the spring (#10 – Anvil: The Story of Anvil and #4 – Antichrist). The rest arrived from September through December (#2 – Avatar, #3 – A Serious Man, #5 – Up in the Air, #6 – The Lovely Bones, and #8 – Where the Wild Things Are). Looking back at 2008, something similar happens (#1 – 6 are from “awards season”, #7 – 10 coming in the summer or early fall). Tinseltown jerryrigs their entire approach to a basic three part strategy: May through August is clear commerciality, September through December is the jumpstart and heft of pre-Oscar buzz, with the following January through April being a time for leftovers and loose ends.

Among those who agree with Queenan are what one would call the “art house crowd” (though “snobs” could easily be substituted for the final part of said title). They are the thinkers and pundits, journalists and film writers who live in work in the major metropolitan areas of the US – the Coasts, for want of a better word. They attend film festivals and special premieres. They are catered to by independent distributors and courted by those needing attention to their otherwise fringe efforts. These are the voices who clamor for unreleased Sundance gems, who conjure up movies and their makers that few outside the circuit know or even acknowledge. In many ways, they set the tone and terms of what’s “good” and what’s “bad”. The latest from Bong Joon-ho? Brilliant. The current Jay Roach comedy? Crap.

While some call this elitist, it’s actually a question of entitlement. Harlan Ellison made it very clearly that everyone is permitted their own opinion as long as it is a “learned” one. Queenan, who uses comedy to cement his points, could be merely going for laughs, but if he is indeed serious about 2010 being the worst in a while, he has – perhaps – half a point. Amid its languishing love affair with 3D, a gimmick destroying more potential (Clash of the Titans, The Last Airbender) than generating untold profits and a future fraught with the same old shi…stuff (quick, name some Comic-Con buzz outside the Avengers/Green Latern hype), the studios do seem bereft of ideas. For every Inception, there’s a dozen Grown-Ups. For each Toy Story 3, there’s an unnecessary CG family film which just pales in comparison to Pixar.

But does this mean 2010 is all that bad? Well, efforts like The Human Centipede, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Life During Wartime, Mimacs, and Shutter Island might have something to say about that. Yes, we realize that at least half of those mentioned are from the far more potent “international” market, and a couple came out years ago before finally darkening an American shore, but with how global cinema has become, it seems unfair to avoid the output of other countries to simply criticize the West and its wanton desire for pap.

Maybe it’s due to how dismal some of the outright Cineplex slop has been so far. After all, it’s pretty hard to defend Jonah Hex, Prince of Persia, or the wealth of lame RomComs like Just Wright and Letters to Juliet. If genres were dead horses, no one beats them better than Tinseltown. A better theory is that, as filmgoers have gotten less choosy, Hollywood has finally figured out how to precisely micromanage its product to fit specifically designed and designated demographics. The result is a perfect storm of unevenness. Audiences are presold on ideas that the suits have already determined they will enjoy – at least, in the short term. A dollar amount is set, and if the film reaches said goal (or gets even close) the whole package is deemed a success – destined to be recycled, repeated, and eventually reviled.

As the seventh month of this season creeps to a close, we wait in anticipation for the pleasures/pains of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, the brilliance/buffoonery of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, the originality/ordinariness of David Fincher’s The Social Network, and the always mysterious meaning behind the Coen Brothers decision to remake True Grit. Queenan’s words have resonance, if not rationality. As critics groups prepare their annual lists, left field films will suddenly start appearing, building buzz in a way that makes their little gold statue chances all the more certain. It’s guaranteed, like Jack Nicholson’s smile, or David O. Russell getting kicked off another project.

Like complaining that a meal is the worst you’ve ever had after only eating the appetizer and salad – before even sampling the main course and dessert – Queenan defeats his own purpose. There is a lot to lament about Movies circa 2010. Can the next five months save things. Probably. Will it reverse the obvious trend toward mediocrity and mindless filmic fluff? Not as long as viewers are lapping it up relentlessly. If movies were merely art, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Instead, they are a business, and like any moneymaking model, it churns out what the consumer craves – and right now, our appetites trend toward drivel.