It only seemed fitting. As the box-office numbers rolled this past weekend, “Jackass: Number Two,” a movie celebrating the systematic self-torture of a half-dozen man-child fools, was looking to push $30 million in its first three days. It’s the Christ-don’t-you-people-have-anything-better-to-do debut of the year, especially considering that it’s an R-rated movie appealing chiefly to 15 year olds hoping to pick up a few ideas for when mom and dad go out of town.
But that was only No. 1, and down on the charts – way down – was the real story of the weekend. Lurking quietly at No. 7, the suits behind it hoping it would go unnoticed, was “All the King’s Men,” a remake of the 1949 classic (a winner for best picture) with a dream cast comprised of some of the finest movie stars in the world. In its first weekend, the Sean Penn-led drama debuted with a stunningly weak $3.7 million, a total that would be considered subpar for a Hilary Duff exploitation movie. It’s the sort of epic failure that in a typical turnaround would end careers, be the subject of shit-show press conferences and invite nasty, yeah-we-figured assessments from rival studio chiefs. How could a movie that’s such an obvious sell tank so extravagantly?
There is, and there always is, a catch here. The movies in question, though on the surface at polar-opposite ends of what would conventionally fall under the umbrella of “good” film, had a bizarre reversal in critical reaction going into the weekend. Over at The New York Times, for example, A.O. Scott lampooned “All the King’s Men” as “overwrought and tedious,” while “Jackass” earned raves from Nathan Lee as “some of the most fearless, liberated and cathartic comedy in modern movies.” Many, many other critics followed suit – everywhere there was timid, surprised love letters to the boys of “Jackass” and slap-on-the-wrist attacks on “All the King’s Men.”
This strange turn of events, though certainly an anomaly, represents a new take on a dichotomy that recently has come to the forefront of the public’s relationship with popular film. Increasingly critics and even film buffs have come under fire from the greater moviegoing public, who see the general aversion of self-touted movie snobs to their favorite films and go on the defensive. Reviews have no effect on a movie’s business, it’s often argued, and critics serve only to make the public feel bad for wanting to see the movies they do. “It wasn’t trying to win an Oscar, it’s just meant to be funny” is a favorite mantra. It’s a sentiment that even the major studios seem to share: The early months of the year were marked by an industry-wide trend of not screening first-run films for critics, because, well, why bother?
As such, conventional analysis of last weekend’s box office would tend to paint a similar picture: “Jackass,” the movie ceremoniously for and by the masses, won the weekend in a landslide, while the “legitimate” filmmaking – “All the King’s Men” – was left in the cold by average American moviegoer, a creature who couldn’t possibly appreciate a symbol more subtle than a bull ramming a guy in the crotch.
Except, of course, that that’s not what actually happened. Everyone was wrong. Perhaps, as some critics have noted recently, the perceived void between critics and their readers is more reactionary than it is an actual drop-off in taste. So what if every college kid you’ve ever known would be equally as content watching “Old School” as “The Godfather”? Who’s to say a critic or a run-of-the-mill film enthusiast wouldn’t be as well? Not a soul over the age of 16 who went to “Jackass: Number Two” thought it would make for good conversation afterward, and neither, it’s fair to assume, did most of the critics who screened it. There’s some common ground here. We all love film. Why can’t we talk about it anymore?
There are other questions: How did “Jackass: Number Two,” which I can’t imagine was terribly different from number one, get universally better reviews than its predecessor? How exactly does someone screw up “All the King’s Men”? But let’s leave it. For now, everyone take a breath and appreciate, if only for a moment, the community experience of going to see a movie. A week from now, when you’re navigating your way to side-by-side doors alternatively showing “The Departed” (heaven) and “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning” (hell), remember that the experience you’re about to have, and the choice thereof, is entirely your own.
Besides, fuck it. Film died in 1968. You have nothing to lose.