We all love to review the summer’s best films. And we like to revel in the box-office bombs. But few ever re-examine the summer’s most mediocre offerings, and really, isn’t that what summer is about? Big, boozy, action-packed mediocrity? It’s not about the Oscar race, and it’s not about finding niche audiences. It’s about profit. Giant, corporate-driven profits. It’s about putting more money into the already overstuffed-with-cash pockets of out-of-touch white men in suits. And how do you do that? You play it safe. You appeal to as wide an audience as possible, and the best way to appeal to a wide audience is to make a movie that doesn’t alienate anyone. In order to make a movie that doesn’t alienate anyone, you need a slick, bland product that hayseeds won’t be offended by “cause all them gays made ’em think too hard and confused their tingly bits.” Big, wet heterosexual movies kisses never confuse anyone. Red and blue conflagrations don’t hurt anyone’s poor little brains.
So, let us go back to May and look over the summer’s most pedestrian offerings, shall we?
The summer kicked off with the grand-daddy of Just Okay, the latest nugget of mediocrity crapped out by the Marvel factory, continuing in their tradition of profitable but unmemorable films, something that they’ve excelled at since the spectacular first Iron Man. Thor was mediocre greatness: It provided a bland but muscle-bound title character played by the inoffensive Chris Hemsworth, ample Natalie Portman cleavage shots (but nothing naughty), and even an inaccurate but easy lesson in mythology. Kenneth Branaugh was the perfect director, because Thor was like a mass-produced, action packed Shakespearean film without any of that Ye Olde English to confuse your crazy uncle.
4. Crazy, Stupid, Love
The filmmakers behind this romantic comedy were smart: They combined an Oscar-caliber actor in Ryan Gosling with the mainstream friendly Steve Carell and gave America what it loves the most — a makeover story! In the fall season, Crazy, Stupid, Love might have taken a hard look at the post-divorce consequences on children, but what audiences REALLY wanted to see was Steve Carell get a new haircut and abandon those New Balance sneakers in favor of more metrosexual look. It’s like “Queer Eye for a Straight Guy” without any of the gays that might upset the delicate sensibilities of conservative America. Plus, it was demographically friendly: Gosling and Emma Stone for the younger generation, Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, and Marisa Tomei for the older generation, and that “America’s Top Model” winner for The CW crowd. Plus, it ends with a graduation speech. EVERYONE loves graduation speeches!
3. The Hangover II
I’m reluctant to put this sequel and the summer’s biggest comedy into the “mediocre” category because it’s beat-for-beat replication of the first Hangover film drove me batsh*t. But myself and other critics weren’t the target audience: The target audience were people who loved the first Hangover film and wanted a reason to revisit it. Todd Phillips gave audiences exactly what they wanted — another Hangover. Same story, same characters, similar jokes, different setting. Thailand! How exotic! Audiences left exclaiming, “Wow! That was just like the first Hangover. Because it was the first Hangover.
2. Captain America: The First Avenger
Yet another in the Marvel assembly line, Captain America went back in time to give us an impoosibly patriotic version of 1940’s America. It was World War II with nary a mention of that ugly Holocaust. Chris Evans, who played the title character, was perfect: Blond, blue-eyes, muscular and terrifically serviceable, but unspectacular. It was also another origins story, which Hollywood loves — they give the illusion of intelligence without actually making you think. $170 million in moviegoers all left the theater content, exclaiming to anyone that would listen, “I liked it! It was totally OK!”
And the number one most awesomely mediocre film of summer is…
1. The Help
The Help sparked a lot of faux controversy among critics and pundits about the wisdom of a white woman telling a civil rights-era story about black maids, but moviegoers mostly ignored that controversy and settled into a nice, formulaic feel-good story that mostly eschewed an accurate look at the turbulent 1960s America in favor of a “good ole days” conservative depiction — one that wouldn’t offend your racist grandfather and would make your slightly less racist grandmother cry a little. The Help could’ve examined the ugliness of the era, warts and all, but who wants to see that when you could make sweet story about a white woman eating sh*t (literally) to the immense pleasure of the audiences everywhere, because when it comes to 200 years of institutional racism, eating a little sh*t makes everything OK.
Plus, Emma Stone is really cute, right?