“F” Marks the Flop

Over the weekend, something rare occurred. While critics were chiming in on how much they enjoyed the new Brad Pitt crime thriller, Killing Them Softly (currently sitting with a 78% at Rotten Tomatoes), the word of mouth was something else all together. While other recent releases were earning A’s (Argo, Flight, Lincoln) and B’s (Red Dawn, Dredd 3D), the Andrew Dominik drama pulled in an unheard F. That’s right, Cinemascore, the polling service that’s been asking actual audience members for their reaction to films for nearly 35 years discovered that this latest bit of hoods and hitmen earned one of the lowest ranks ever. Even so called “crap” like Silent Hill: Revelation and Taken 2 surpassed this surprise bomb.

From a practical standpoint, it’s a death knell for this otherwise talky attempt at bringing George V. Higgin’s novel Cogan’s Trade to the screen. Pitt has a pretty good track record as a superstar. He can usually open almost anything, from oddball Tarantino mash-ups such as Inglourious Basterds to difficult films like Tree of Life and Fight Club. During his formative years, he did have his low points (Johnny Suede, Troy), but once he became BRAD PITT, his career arc has been upward and onward. Just last year, Moneyball was a serious Oscar contender for both its star and its substance, and next Summer, he has a potential tentpole franchise with the hopes to be a trilogy zombie action epic, World War Z.

So an audience rating of F seems a bit harsh, even for a movie that’s more chatter than chase scenes. Yet this is the second time that Pitt and Dominik have teamed up to thoroughly underwhelm. Back in 2007, the duo brought The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford to Award Season screenings, and the results were equally disastrous. Even with a budget of only $30 million, the film failed to gross more than $15 million. While it was, again, a hit with critics (it made several year-end Top 10 Lists), viewers didn’t like its revisionist Western wane. And now, their second collaboration has become one of only eight films ever to receive the lowest Cinemascore ever. The other seven? Solaris, Bug, Wolf Creek, Darkness, The Box, Silent House, and The Devil Inside.

As a symbol of disconnect between the public and the people writing about film, the discrepancy is nothing new. Heck, of the other seven, two (Solaris and Bug) also received mostly positive reviews from the press. No, the more interesting thing here is the audience’s outright rejection of a project that its otherwise intensely popular star totally believed in. Pitt is a producer here, and fought to get Dominik another shot after Assassination went pear-shaped. He pushed to have the Boston-based narrative moved to the storm torn region of New Orleans (Pitt is a major charity player in the still ravaged area) and loved Dominik’s decision to set the action during the economic collapse of 2008.

And, let’s face it, he’s good in the movie. Though not given much to do except argue with co-star Richard Jenkins (as the mob family’s front and go-between) and look handsome, it’s no different that many of the movies he’s made “for the mainstream.” Like George Clooney, Pitt is famous for keeping one foot in the commercial elements of filmmaking, and the other in projects that will pump up his aesthetic aims. He’s not as consistent in both arenas as his Ocean‘s co-star, but for the most part, he’s a solid second. While his filmography doesn’t necessary support such a conclusion, when Pitt is good, he’s so good that the rest of his creative catalog shrinks in comparison.

For many, Pitt is merely a pretty boy. He’s arm candy, hooked to another example of measured media mania with little or no heft to back up the obsession (an Oscar for Girl, Interrupted not withstanding). As the well-known Brad-jelina, he and his live-in love are tabloid terrors, the press pouncing on every detail of their dull high end life from what clothes their kids wear to what part of the world they are currently cruising through. They are no longer localized, they are international, which means that many in their corner studio suites aren’t sweating the American box office. They are hoping, and it’s quite possible, that Pitt’s projected appeal overseas will lift Killing Them Softly beyond the baffling F grade. It worked for Johnny Depp. Both Pirates 4 and The Tourist were literally saved by huge international turnstile twists.

Of course, the same can’t be said for Mr. Dominik. That aforementioned $15 million for Jesse James? That INCLUDED international numbers. Right now, Killing Them Softly has earned about $14 million around the world, exceeding the paltry $7 million in the US…and since the film only cost $15 million to make, it is possible that the film could be a “hit” within a couple of weeks. Still, some will wonder why this entry into an otherwise solid genre failed. They will question the director (who seems stuck in laborious pace mode) and argue that Pitt can’t “open” a film the way he used to.

It has to be said that the Weinstein Company, in charge of distributing the film, did little or no publicity prior to its release (TV ads and trailers were rare), and Pitt was out of the limelight for most of the year trying to polish the potential turd that is World War Z (weeks of reshoots and general bad buzz surrounds the project). More importantly, Pitt’s lasting efforts seem more about those around him than the actor himself. Tarantino will take Basterds with him forever. His handpicked Aldo Raine…not so much. Similarly, while he has been very good in many of the films he’s made, he’s yet to have industry cred. Until he gets that Academy Award appreciation, he will always appear to be on the outside looking in.

Killing Them Softly won’t be winning much of anything anytime soon. While three quarters of the critical community want to cut it some slack, viewers expecting gunfights and goombahs, not conversations and monologues, have made it clear what kind of gangster lean they like. While polar opposite efforts like Shoot ‘Em Up equally confuse the masses, a measured back and forth like Contraband, or anything with Jason Statham or a paycheck cashing Liam Neesom seems right up their alley. So it’s no surprise that Pitt’s folly found less favor with those expecting more of the same. What is surprising is that such a score doesn’t happen more often. Apparently, such a rarity is reserved for the really rotten…or something as disappointing as a baffling Brad Pitt talking too much.