Aim for the middle.

Published on August 22nd, 2011

Alex takes a look at movies that are forgettable, but totally worth watching.

Sometimes you want to make a delicious meal. You decide you want to grill some steak, make some potatoes, and throw a little salad into the mix. Sometimes you want to go get Popeye’s because it’s close, easy, and the satisfaction you get from it is worth the following day and a half of constantly wanting to throw up. But sometimes you want something in between. You don’t really know what it is you want, you just know that don’t want to put in too much effort, but also kind of want to feel some sort of satisfaction afterward. You want to enjoy your experience, although not so much that you feel compelled to send an e-mail to your friend that they must watch this movie… Shit. My analogy is exposed.

I spent the last few days researching a podcast that James and I recorded yesterday. I took a break each day to eat some mediocre chicken sandwiches and watch a movie, but I didn’t want to watch anything that would engage me so much that I had to write about it. I wanted my mind to stay on the topic of this podcast that we were going to do, so I just wanted to watch some simple – but good – movies. Movies that are formulaic, movies that aren’t hard to predict, but movies that are nonetheless extremely enjoyable. These aren’t movies that make me want to write to people about, but they’re apparently movies that I want to blog about.

The movies I watched over the last few days are State of Play, Fracture, The Proposal, and The Town. These are movies that I just kind of wanted to watch, and they all turned out to be exceptionally entertaining. I had seen most of them before, some multiple times, but I was still confident that the two hours I would spend with them was not going to be wasted. There is nothing spectacular about any of them*, they just happen to be well-constructed, well-executed movies. Very often these movies are absurd**, but they’re always entertaining. None of these movies will affect you for long after the credits roll, but you will generally enjoy yourself and might even feel compelled to watch them again.

*Although the second heist sequence in The Town is pretty stellar.

**The Proposal is 107 minutes long, and from the eleventh minute onward everything is implausible. Fracture is also probably implausible, but it sells everything well enough that I doubt that statement. The Town, however, requires us to believe that oxycodone addicts look like Ben Affleck and Blake Lively.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

People on the internet and/or in social situations often loudly bemoan how formulaic Hollywood is. Everything has gotten so similar, they say. There are no more original ideas. I won’t argue the first point, and I generally agree with the second*. But the reason movies are so formulaic is because the formula works. These are movies structured like the ones we grew up with, the only ones we really know how to watch. When a fifty-year old who is used to watching fairly linear, three-act movies their whole life, they will likely need to watch a Charlie Kaufman movie like Synecdoche, New York a couple of times to wrap their head around it, or their brain will just melt. Or they’ll just hate it**. Truly original media are always fighting an uphill battle, even with a movie going addict like myself***. And that’s why sometimes I just want to watch a Sandra Bullock romcom.

*The most original ideas now are just reconstructions of old ideas. There are original ideas left, I’m sure, but we’re all too used to the formula for any of them to be accepted on a mass level. Vaguely related point: At the peak of their success, Pharrell of The Neptunes complained about how almost all pop singles were written in 4/4 time, and how this is a detriment to music. Of course, Skateboard P and Chad Hugo didn’t switch their style because everybody is just so used to 4/4 that almost anything else would seem awkward. While some popular songs break out of the conventional structure, the majority will always be in 4/4.

**This is a completely acceptable reaction for anyone to have.

***I couldn’t tell you what the fuck half of my favourite movies were about on first viewing; I’m typically pretty slow. Barely related point: this post has a lot of footnotes. Embrace it. (Fear it.)

 

 

 

There are a couple of these movies every year, and they always have a shelf life of a couple of years. Fracture and State of Play have been mostly forgotten by now, and The Proposal and The Town are both on their way there. In trying to come up with a list of other movies like this, I struggled, and can’t come up with anything before 2007. These are movies that some people remember, but not for all that long. I remember Fracture because I legitimately like it, but there will be something that replaces it in the rotation soon enough. Probably Drive.

 These movies all have interesting aspects to them, but nothing too interesting. Fracture asks, can somebody really manipulate the law that well*? State of Play looks at the way media affects political and criminal stories without going too deep into any of the ideas for it to feel pretentious**. The Town is a cool action movie that wants to be Heat 2: Boston Boogaloo, leading to an action movie that fails its most interesting themes, but is amicably awesome nonetheless. The Proposal isn’t about anything, other than asking the viewer the hard-hitting question, “Can one person really be this charming?***”

*Answer: Possibly, if the person banging their wife is as stupid as Billy Burke.

**The fact that there’s a stupid shadowy assassin and a Jason Bateman cameo helps that.

***Answer: Yes, somehow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Movie studios know what they have with these movies, and never really expect big financial returns from them. With the exception of The Proposal, all of these movies came out in the fall or spring, when studios typically release movies that aren’t expected to reach mass audiences*. They know they don’t have massive hits on their hands, nor do they have movies that are good enough to give a real awards push. But they have movies that are entertaining, well-executed, and absolutely worth seeing, if not totally worth remembering for long. These movies don’t exist to get a specific point across, although some try. They’re just there, take them or leave them.

*And The Proposal was not expected to do the summer business it did; that it was a hit is likely due to luck and the fact that it’s a romantic comedy that doesn’t suck. Any 2009 romantic comedy could have been slotted in its same release date as ‘counter programming.’ The Proposal could have easily been released in the spring.

 

 

These movies exist in our minds for the time that we put in watching them. Rarely will we feel compelled to put any thought into them afterward, and the most conversation we’ll have about them is, “So, did you like State of Play?” These movies aren’t the peak of what the film world has to offer us, nor are they the bottom of the barrel. They’re in the middle, but they’re conscious of their middleness, and they never try to achieve anything more than pure entertainment. These movies are Hollywood in every sense. And while using the word Hollywood as an adjective generally sounds like an insult, it isn’t always. Sometimes, it can just mean the perfect execution of a formula that is older than we are. You don’t always have time to marinate a steak and stir-fry some vegetables, and eating Popeye’s everyday is dangerous to your health. Sometimes you just need to eat something basic but tasty enough, and sometimes that’s all you need.

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