Fast Food Film Nation

Here’s a prediction. When the tallies are tolled for the June 17 weekend, Mr. Popper’s Penguins, a bland and utterly offensive Jim Carrey kiddie film will earn more money than either X-Men: First Class or Super 8 did when they debuted, perhaps, even combined. Now, it may seem like a daunting task for this sorry excuse for family entertainment to better a total of $94 million ($38 million for 8 and $56 for First Class) but in the less than predictable cultural climate, it wouldn’t be surprising. It’s a guarantee that Penguins, which literally bird shits all over the classic children’s book, will get less than glowing reviews. Unfortunately, the modern movie fan doesn’t gauge their reaction based on the learned opinion of others.

Another critic in another blog said it best – we are rapidly becoming a fast food film nation. We don’t care about quality, just quantity. Put another way, the current casual audience member just wants a movie to deliver what it promises. If it does, and doesn’t completely destroy your sense of self in the process, you’re happy. You laugh. You cry. You kiss your $10.50 (not including parking and popcorn – or 3D) goodbye. It’s the reliability of a Big Mac, the knowledge that when you walk into an otherwise noisy and cell phone infested theater, you won’t have to worry about turning your aesthetic on. Just sit back, hope the teens behind you don’t chatter away too loudly, and know that you can readily respond to your own BFF should they text you some important piece of personal trivia.

Movie-going in 2011 is indeed like that ritualistic trip to the local cheap chain. We no longer care about or even crave, the gourmet. We’ll go as far as Five Guys, but we’re definitely not driving down to the local chop house for a pure Prime Kobe Beef burger. Minus the allegory, crowds can’t wait for Michael Bay to bring his increasingly hyperactive transforming robots back to the big screen, or line up in disinterested droves when Captain Jack Sparrow shows up to yawn and underperform. But tell the masses that the latest comic book reboot of a previously beloved franchise is actually a terrific film, and the group shrug is stunning. Similarly, J. J. Abrams does one of the best Spielberg imitations in a long time, and the response is more Always than Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Of course, any question of taste remains strictly personal and individualistic. Indeed, one of the great frauds of film criticism is that one voice could have any real impact on a movie’s success of failure. Even back in their heyday, Siskel and Ebert were more trusted than believed, meaning they had the public’s ear (or better yet, thumb) but didn’t really affect their ultimate decisions. Today, there’s even less impact from a journalistic point of view. It’s all aggregates and social network consensus. Home video didn’t help, and the indefensible international marketing angle (as long as there’s eye candy, the world is happy) lowers the already barrel scraping common cinematic denominators. Add that to the blogsphere’s inherent belief that anyone can be and is a critic, and you’ve can see the decision to dilute.

But why do we accept Spam when a steak is so much better? Clearly, we’ve spent too much time in our living rooms and not enough actually enjoying qualities products. We don’t want our films to be art, just acceptable, and we definitely don’t want their makers to take their time delivering their often esoteric points. Recently, a group of critics voiced concern that many in their ilk – mostly up and coming 20 to 30 somethings – were complaining something fierce about Terrence Malick’s epic The Tree of Life. Whining about the pace and the prolonged length, the smarter among the complainers pointed out that, if it was Peter Jackson was expanding his already inflated vision of Middle Earth, or George Lucas was re-remastering his Star Wars universe, none one would be protesting either.

Going back to Ebert for a moment, he once said that no good movie is too long (and no bad movie is too short – or something along those lines). Studios frequently contract their product to play somewhere along a certain demographic line – horror and kiddie flicks: 80 to 90 minutes. Same with comedies, both romantic and raunchy. Dramas and thrillers get a bit more slack, mostly resting in the 100 to 120 range. Finally, a big bit of popcorn bombast can get away with being two hours plus, as long as the title is known enough and theaters acquiesce on the number of multiplex screens it can monopolize. If it sounds as mechanical as an assembly line, you’d be right. Before the first foot of film is exposed, a studio knows where the first dollar will be made, where the pick-up cash can come from (overseas, DVD sales) and who to blame should all this micromanaging backfire and the movie bombs.

As a result, the viewer, who is indeed complicit in this process, learns to like slop. They come to expect and accept it. Believe it or not, if films like Tree of Life, and not Rio, were regularly making $200 million at the box office, there’d be more Malick imitators than crappy CG cartoons. Like we always say, you can’t really complain about the movies Hollywood hands you every week – your previous palate for same was the reason they were made in the first place. Sure, there are flukes and freaks, but for the most part, you want a bland, mystery meat cheeseburger and those gamey grill jockeys in Tinseltown and more than happy to fry it up. This is why Popper, as pathetic and pandering as it is, will make a mint. Nothing underlines the limited vision of the industry circa 2011 than an endless string of penguin poop and fart jokes.

Why? Because the screening audience loved them. They cooed like kittens when the featured flightless birds acted adorable, and their utility grade beef bred bratlings snickered each time one of the feathered friends dropped a deuce on Carrey’s middle aged mug. One of the reasons that fast food is so popular is that it is quick, convenient, and delivers exactly what you expect. KFC isn’t suddenly going to turn into Roscoe’s Chicken and Waffles. Similarly, Kevin James’ The Zookeeper isn’t going to turn into Chris Noonan’s Babe. You all loved Paul Blart: Mall Cop and Eddie Murphy’s Dr. Doolittle, and this critter-ccentric reconfiguration of both could easily be subtitled “If I Could Make Juvenile Jokes with the Animals.” Since we’ve long since given up on demanding excellence, Hollywood is giving us exactly what we ask for. Like it or not, it’s Whoppers for everyone.