Could Mediocre Movies Save Movie Theaters? ‘Ticket to Paradise,’ ‘A Man Called Otto’ and ‘80 for Brady’ Say Yes
Quick, what do the following movies have in common? The cheesy middle-aged rom-com “Ticket to Paradise,” the curmudgeon-finds-his-heart-of-gold drama “A Man Called Otto,” and “80 for Brady,” a road comedy about four octogenarians girl-tripping their way to the 2017 Super Bowl. All three are built around those once larger-than-life entities known as movie stars (Julia Roberts and George Clooney in “Paradise”; Tom Hanks in “Otto”; Jane Fonda, Sally Field, Lily Tomlin and Rita Moreno in “Brady”). All three are solid mid-level hits at the domestic box office (“Ticket to Paradise” made $68 million, “A Man Called Otto” has grossed $60 million and “80 for Brady” is chugging its way to the $50 million yard line). That’s a fact that many have taken note of at a time when the most savory offerings of the awards season (“Tár,” “The Fabelmans,” “The Banshees of Inisherin”) starkly underperformed at the box office.
Yet there’s a larger lesson to be gleaned from the success of these three films, one that has largely gone unremarked upon. I’d say it relates to the most essential thing about them: All three are defiantly mediocre. That, in fact, is the secret of their success.
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I’m sorry, I really am, for how totally patronizing that sounded. But maybe I can take the sting out of it by admitting that, like many moviegoers, I’m not some automatic hater of mediocrity. I am even, at times, a defender of it. Mediocrity has its place in the multiverse of movies and always has. I would argue that it’s been a sizable chunk of the movie pie — and that movies, as an industry, depend on mediocrity more than we might like to think.
Not all mediocrity is created equal, of course. I thought “Ticket to Paradise” was the purest candy-corn rom-com kitsch, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s a picture that has no illusions about itself. One reason it was such an effective vehicle for Julia Roberts and George Clooney is that these two old pros could relax into the tropical formulaic shenanigans of it — they turned hitting their marks into a pleasurable form of slumming-as-showmanship. “A Man Called Otto,” on the other hand, takes off from a potentially good premise — Tom Hanks as a man warped by cynicism — and fills it in with a contrived backstory, “healing” situations too prefab to believe and enough feel-good tropes to make you feel force-fed. It was not my cup of mediocrity. As for “80 for Brady,” it has its funny moments, but mostly it’s star-driven sitcom comfort food for a too-often ignored demo. I’m glad they got a movie attuned to their feisty antennae.
But here’s why all of this is the magic key, a path to the future of movie theaters that has not been duly recognized. When it comes to analyzing the box office tea leaves and what they say about where moviegoing is headed, the excitement that got pinned to the phenomenon of “Top Gun: Maverick” is fully justified, but it’s far from the whole story. For “Maverick” was a fantastic anomaly. It’s a movie whose very essence hinged on 40 years of pent-up 1980s nostalgia, now uncorked like some ironic blockbuster equivalent of fine wine. (In 1986, if you’d suggested that “Top Gun” should have won the Oscar, or even been nominated, you’d have been looked at like someone who’d lost his marbles.)
“Elvis,” too, as much as it was a must-see biopic-on-Baz-Luhrmann-overdrive that earned its success ($150 million at the domestic box office), is not a film to generalize from. Neither is “Everything Everywhere All at Once.” These were movies that adults turned out for. They proved, and can stand as symbols of, the viability and transcendence of the theatrical experience. But how easy would it now be to come up with another “Maverick,” another “Elvis,” another “EEAAO”?
I, too, am desperate to see more movies like that, but what we also need are the movies that grease the wheels of the theatrical experience: the friendly bread-and-butter formula films for adults that audiences can depend on, that can keep them hooked on the act of moviegoing. To me, the most painful aspect of the fall movie season — I’m tempted to call it tragic — is seeing the extraordinary films that underperformed, like “Tár” and “The Fabelmans,” treated as if they were subtly alien, as if there was something not inviting enough about them. “Tár,” we kept being told, was “cold” and enigmatic. (In truth, it has the heat of a thriller and is eminently accessible.) “The Fabelmans” was about Steven Spielberg’s parents’ divorce and his teenage adventures in filmmaking. A prevalent attitude out there was: Come on, is that something the mass audience would give a damn about?
But I think that kind of dismissiveness misses the actual problem. The audience of adults that still yearns to see movies that aren’t fantasy blockbusters (Marvel, “Jurassic Park”), or the horror freakout of the week, has been drastically underserved. As a result, they have fallen out of the regularity of moviegoing. The rhythms of staying at home, which the media, during the pandemic, tried to sell as a new normal, almost a new ideology (you won’t have to go into the office anymore! or to a movie theater! just let it all come to you!), are still very much in play. The idea that they’re a new paradigm has not lost its sway. But I think 2022 was the year when people allowed themselves to get used to going to the movies again. What’s going to keep them there is movies they can count on for an experience that reinforces — in its very aesthetic — the comfortable and the conventional.
Because really, it has always been that way. What we imagine as “film history” is, in fact, the crème de la crème. During the heyday of classic Hollywood, people went out to the movies and saw the studio programmer of the week — thousands upon thousands of Westerns and comedies and romances and thrillers that are now long forgotten. And the 1970s, that fabled age of cinematic adventure, had a whole lot of cereal mixed in with the cutting-edge art. Yes, “The Godfather” and “M*A*S*H” and “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Last Tango in Paris” and “The French Connection” and “Shampoo” were box office hits — but so were “Billy Jack” and “Willard” and “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” and “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” and “The Towering Inferno” and “The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams” and “Rollerball.”
You could say, and you’d be right, that our era outdoes that one in the sheer profusion of fantasy escapist pulp. But I’m talking about movies for adults that adults still want to see. Those movies run on a separate track from the Marvelization of Hollywood, and we need them — in a more modest way — to be commercially successful too. Imagine that there were 30 movies a year like “Ticket to Paradise” and “A Man Called Otto”; not so long ago, there were. But the industry, in letting the mid-budget movie for adults slide into oblivion, wound up dichotomizing itself into a choice of insane extremes: CGI rides for kids (or the kid in us all) versus… those highly select and elite films that the critics cream over during awards season. That is not a healthy choice. It’s like saying that you want to go out to eat and your options are either fast food or a high-end place of dauntingly lauded culinary ambition. Given that choice, who wouldn’t stay home (or go with the fast-food option)?
It’s easy to mock mediocrity, but actually it’s the great uniter. Just look at all the television that’s mediocre that people relax into for that very reason. (Some of it is even quite acclaimed; but that’s another story.) If there were more movies like “Ticket to Paradise” or “A Man Called Otto,” audiences would show up for them, and the whole spirit of going out to a movie theater would shift. I can’t prove it, but I suspect that an audience of people who’d gotten that much more used to going to the movies would be that much more eager, in the flow of things, to show up for “Tár” and “The Fabelmans.” At its greatest, moviegoing can be a religious experience, but at its most everyday and sustaining, moviegoing is that reassuringly dowdy thing known as a habit. The industry needs to start making movies that adults want to make a habit of seeing.
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