February 14, 2008

These Things Matter: That Inescapable Backlash

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Two of my more memorable movie-going experiences of the past year were Knocked Up and Juno. When I saw Knocked Up, I can only describe the theater as pandemonium, because of how hard everyone was laughing. At Juno, it was obvious how much affection the audience (including me) had for the movie and its characters. The two audiences I was a part of were not unique, as both movies easily surpassed $100 million in earnings.
But as inevitably happens whenever something gets popular, there was a backlash against the popularity of the two films. Such critics usually are either jealous of success, nitpicking at irrelevancies, or simply desiring to go against popular opinion. This kind of criticism bothers me; when a movie makes that much money, there must be a reason people like it so much.
Even the most fervent detractors of the films could not argue that “stupid” audiences are filling the theaters. (Compare the successes of Norbit and Wild Hogs, for example.) That leaves a collection of other so-called problems that are borderline crazy to claim. Here is a sampling of them:
Both films are actively pro-life, too much for a comedy. When I first heard last summer that some were arguing that Knocked Up was causing controversy in the pro-life/pro-choice debate, I was dumbfounded. When I actually saw the movie, I was even more stunned. The only allusion in the film to abortion is a brief conversation Katherine Heigl has with her mother, where she quickly addresses her decision. The scene is there almost as a plot necessity, to answer a question most audience members would have (is she going to keep the child?), not to provoke debate about the abortion issue. There might be a better argument that Juno is pro-life, but even then, it’s weak. There is an appearance of a pro-life protester, but it’s played for laughs. The characters are strong and likeable enough that Juno’s choice to keep the baby is, once again, quick and ultimately forgotten, so that the rest of the film can unfold.
The female characters in Knocked Up are unrealistic and sexist. It’s easy to dismiss this claim by emphasizing that the films are comedies, so realism isn’t the biggest necessity. Even ignoring that, this argument doesn’t work. Both female characters seemed pretty realistic to me: a work-driven independent (Katherine Heigl) and her sister, a neurotic, manipulative, wise-cracking mom (Leslie Mann). Is every female in the world one of these two types? Absolutely not, but some are, so why aren’t they realistic? The claim that the movie is sexist was heightened by Heigl herself saying so, but I remember the movie getting very chick-flicky by the end, and most guys seemed to agree. (This is not necessarily a bad thing.) If a movie is being called both a sexist film and a chick flick, then it probably s actually somewhere in the middle. Calling the movie sexist, when both of the female protagonists are still likeable in their own way, is too strong.
Juno is too “cute,” relying too much on pop culture references. Many people really like those pop culture references. In a world that has pop culture commentary shows like The Soup and Best Week Ever airing every Friday night, Juno’s use of lines like “Phuket, Thailand” and “your eggo is preggo” was destined to be loved. The script didn’t use these kinds of references too much, but rather in an amount that was necessary for the characters. Juno is a high school girl living in this Best Week Ever world, and she’s a completely plausible, modern character. Constantly referencing pop culture wasn’t just to get laughs, but also contributed to the audience’s affection for Juno as a character. I’m a little more open to the criticism that this pop culture-heavy dialogue could be irritating, because that’s simply a matter of personal taste. However, most critics who said this also said that by the end of the film they had warmed up to the characters and walked out satisfied and smiling. If a movie can initially irritate, only to eventually endear itself, then that speaks very highly of its quality.
The endings of both movies are too corny. To me, a movie ending is only too corny when the entire movie was predictable and boring, so that the ending is just as underwhelming as the rest of it. Knocked Up and Juno were so original, and had such interesting and funny characters that the somewhat formulaic endings work. While sometimes we go to movies because we want to think, or we want to cry, or we want to argue, much of the time we go because we want to laugh. Most movies are going to have happy endings, or else nobody would go to the movies at all. If you want to go to a movie to feel like crap, see Atonement. If you want to go to a movie to feel good, see Juno.