For those of you who swear Adam Sandler is the funniest thing ever and that kegs of Killian's Red give rush week a touch of class, please keep in mind during parts of this piece that Billy Madison (1995) and Happy Gilmore (1996), which many still consider to be Sandler's funniest work to date, were not produced by his Happy Madison Productions company. Other way around. The first offering from HM was the 1999 Rob Schneider vehicle, Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. Personally, I've always felt that Billy and Happy should have been red flags signaling where we would be going in comedy for, if you can believe it, what's turned out to be 15 years now, and that we should not have ignored their signal and diverted as quickly as possible. But, Christ almighty, Deuce should've been a giant blood-red monolith teetering on a string above society, sure to crush everyone in the next slightest breeze if somebody didn't do something about it. If not that, then Deuce certainly should have announced, loudly, what to expect from the HM crew.
This piece portends that there may be, however, an interesting curvature developing in the arc of Happy Madison's repertoire (fair warning, this arc includes Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo and Grandma's Boy). I'm suggesting it's possible that HM's not only exploring deeper themes (they've always done the even-though-you're-different-and-an-outsider-just-be-yourself-and-dont-give-in-to-cliques-or-bullies-and-youll-come-out-on-top-in-the-end thing, but it looks like they're adding peripherals to this truly time-worn refrain that result in a certain amount of—and remember that I use this word within the context of the Happy Madison world—nuance), but are considering eschewing the low-brow tactics they've held so dear for what seems like an eternity already.
Also, the following assumes that anything with a below-R rating qualifies as family movie fare. I know not every such movie is going to be the kind of movie that the whole family will want to sit around and watch together, but a Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating of PG and PG-13 does recommend, sometimes very strongly, that the decision to watch said movie be based on the family cooperating as a cohesive unit. The MPAA must figure "parental guidance" means it is inherently a family act. Don't blame me if that's not what really happens.
That being said, have you ever wondered about the amount of excrement that's being shown in movies these days? Not all the gross-out tactics that have taken firm hold, just the shit. I'm talking your PG-level movies, here. Like, why? Why show that? Why show that much? Broach the subject of shit...maybe. But showing actual shit? People covered in shit? People ingesting shit? People burping in other peoples' faces? People farting in other peoples' faces? Sometimes spray farts. People vomiting in other peoples' faces? Projectile vomiting. Does it seem like a lot? Does it make you laugh? If it does, do you regret that later? If you regret it, do you still seek it out again? Do you ever crave an alternative? If not, why not?
OK, well, I'm going to go ahead and contend that, in what is possibly the best offering ever out of the Happy Madison camp, Kevin James (who co-wrote) and director Steve Carr purposefully flew in the face of today's comedic shit-standard at every turn that 91 minutes could afford when they created the kind-hearted, dedicated Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009). Not only do they avoid the usual shit-gags, but they give some subtle and not so subtle (the title of the movie sounds like fart, of course) nods to the very formula they circumnavigate.
The fact is, Blart omits vulgarity entirely, and its violence is conscientiously muted. Try the scene where Blart is trapped in a vent (the movie takes most of its cue from Die Hard) and can't suppress a digestive noise, and though closely related to a fart, that's not it. Some moviegoers I was near weren't sure what it was, even after Blart succinctly explains, "Missed lunch." I got the feeling they either couldn't believe it would be anything other than a fart, or just sort of hoped that it was a fart. A crafty little rebellion-within-the-rebellion on the part of James and crew.
Call Blart a light-hearted comedy the whole family can enjoy. It certainly is that. But the creators here need to be commended for their courage. There's nothing light-hearted about spitting in the eye of the Hollywood farting/shitting/vomiting golden goose, with a nod and a wink no less. The fact that they so wittingly bypass the Big 3 for the entire movie makes Blart one of the bravest mainstream PG-rated comedies in recent memory. I really mean that. And James shines in a challenging comedic role, challenging given that he doesn't have shit to fall back on. Nor is the title character somehow an emotionally arrested or deranged man-child (often with no basis for being so; examples of this are far too numerous to mention, but think of everything Judd Apatow has been a part of and a lot of what Sandler, Jim Carrey and Wil Ferrel have done).
In fact, Blart is saddled with being a responsible single father who has taken in his mother as well. Where's the fun in that? Without the crutches of excrement and an inexplicably ridiculous level of immaturity, James must carve almost out of nothing by today's standards a comic character that must rely on situation and, in James' case, the gift of being a large body type that can achieve a disproportionate athleticism (watch the scene closely where he pulls over a handicapped scooter only to have the mall patron take off on him). His maneuverability on a Segway should not be underrated. Try one yourself sometime.
The result was a success the likes of which has never been seen before. Blart is the first movie ever released in the month of January to gross over $100 million during its initial release. Whoever was responsible for its release date knew what they were doing. For a movie with a storyline that takes place on Black Friday, its January debut might have shown a little lack of faith. What with no shit-gags and all. And why go up against a Vince Vaughn/Reese Witherspoon tandem if you dont really have to, right? (Just like to note that Vaughn and Witherspoon banged an infant's head against a cupboard for one of their gags in Four Christmases. I won't say it got the loudest laugh at my theatre; it would be more accurate to say loudest reaction.) Blart ultimately grossed $146,336,178 (domestic box office) and topped DVD rental and purchase charts for months. Still runs strong in that area.
This makes me wonder if people are starting to get tired of that other shit, to put it in a nutshell. This also makes me wonder, could Adam Sandler of all people be responsible for raising the bar in family comedy features? For either challenging the filmmakers in his stable to find comedy outside of farting, et al., or accepting their challenge to him? Will Blart's success, surely to test the franchise waters, force a turn in the road without a shit-gag roadmap? Can we maybe have one Blart available for every 14 vulgar, violent movies that depict so many disgusting and horrific acts that I began a list but decided the list became too long and desensitizing to its desired effect so I'm leaving it up to you to recall pretty much 90% of the movies you've seen during your life?
It's no secret that movies have been trying to harness the consumer power of the entire family for a very long time, but over the past I'll say 15 years now, even family-type movies have felt compelled to fart, shit and barf all the way to the bank. There have certainly been gross scenes in movies prior, but you could almost count them on two hands. Pink Flamingos (1972) often gets credited with being the first legitimate gross-out film, but this John Waters effort, famous for its dog shit scene, is rated NC-17 now for "a wide range of perversions in explicit detail" and has never been anywhere near the mainstream. Blazing Saddles (1974) was indeed very popular and is still widely known for the shocking beans-around-the-campfire scene, but Saddles was rated R, and it was just the one scene, it didn't pervade the entire movie by any stretch, hard as I'm sure Mel Brooks tried.
You can start to see what might be on the horizon, though, when an Animal House (1978) or a Caddyshack (1980) or a Porky's (1982) starts to pop up here and there. Hard to imagine today, but each was rated R. And while some wait until the ascension of There's Something About Mary (1998) to say that the gross-out genre officially takes root in the mainstream, I'm going to say it really starts to reach the masses with the one that put the Farrelly Brothers squarely on the map—Dumb and Dumber (1994) and the toilet scene portrayed by none other than Jeff Daniels. They would follow that up with the seriously gross Kingpin (1996), also extremely popular at the time. While Mary was rated R, both Dumber and Kingpin managed PG-13 ratings before it.
It's a common mistake to think the PG-13 rating means that if you're under 13 years old, you can attend these movies if accompanied by an adult. That's not correct. This rating means that admission will be granted to persons of ALL ages, but that parental guidance is suggested in the case of children under the age of 13. Dumb and Dumber? Kingpin? Youre 11? (Cash register.) Enjoy. (One begins to understand why Ben Stiller was considered incredibly "brave" for sticking with an R rating for the 2008 summer release of Tropic Thunder.) During a final proof of this piece, I still found it so difficult to imagine that a governing board would say it's OK for a child to view Kingpin, I revisited the MPAA's film ratings definitions many, many times to see if I've got them right. I'm compelled enough (and trust me, I dont get compelled that often) to risk boring you and losing you by including word for word the MPAA's definition of a PG-13 rating. Its jut too important. (I actually considered leading with it, but the piece really is about Blart, sidetracks not withstanding.) Given that children under 13 are its main consideration, how's this for some fairly joyless language:
A PG-13 rating is a sterner warning by the Rating Board to parents to determine whether their children under age 13 should view the motion picture, as some material might not be suited for them. A PG-13 motion picture may go beyond the PG rating in theme, violence, nudity, sensuality, language, adult activities or other elements, but does not reach the restricted R category. The theme of the motion picture by itself will not result in a rating greater than PG-13, although depictions of activities related to a mature theme may result in a restricted rating for the motion picture. Any drug use will initially require at least a PG-13 rating. More than brief nudity will require at least a PG-13 rating, but such nudity in a PG-13 rated motion picture generally will not be sexually oriented. There may be depictions of violence in a PG-13 movie, but generally not both realistic and extreme or persistent violence. A motion picture's single use of one of the harsher sexually-derived words, though only as an expletive, initially requires at least a PG-13 rating. More than one such expletive requires an R rating, as must even one of those words used in a sexual context. The Rating Board nevertheless may rate such a motion picture PG-13 if, based on a special vote by a two-thirds majority, the Raters feel that most American parents would believe that a PG-13 rating is appropriate because of the context or manner in which the words are used or because the use of those words in the motion picture is inconspicuous.
I'm actually going to call it sinister. Joyless, sinister and subsequently, a lot of it false. I know this piece is exclusive to excrement, but, "There may be depictions of violence in a PG-13 movie, but generally not both realistic and extreme or persistent violence"? I briefly mention The Dark Knight later.
For some reason, I think it would prudent at this juncture to tell you that I'm not a parent.
Anyway, it progresses from there with all things Farrelly, their success forcing shit to seep out further, engorging the mainstream where it would experience greater box office success than even the original masters could've ever imagined. A good example is the incredibly popular Austin Powers franchise (1997-2002), where Mike Myers can't get enough of all things shitty. The second installment's (Spy Who Shagged Me) PG-13 rating was for "sexual innuendo and crude humor," but apparently nothing gets mentioned in this warning about his literally drinking a cup of shit. After Powers, the shit-stream jumps its banks into your sort of pulp, straight-to-rental fare. Along Came Polly (2004), for example, was rated PG-13. Because its co-stars were beyond popular (and, at least with Jennifer Aniston, it could be argued a level of popularity with few precedents), I'll use Polly and Stiller's replay of Daniels' violent shit in Dumber to mark where we begin saying the hell with it. Shit's everywhere. It's part of us now. Somewhere during this time, the marketing guys that help filmmakers decide what content should be included in a movie showed a good dose of shit was becoming not only acceptable, but desired.
Strangely enough though, you'd always hear actual audience members say things like what a shame it was that Myers had to "ruin" Powers by making him drink a cup of shit, etc. Things like, "Why did they have to put that in there?" Granted, anytime I heard those comments, they were coming from someone generally older than 12. (I don't say that flippantly. I think it's vitally important that a distinction could still be salvageable.)
Then there's the Apatow gang, purveyors of raunch with what's been described as a new take on the gross-out—injecting supposed "feeling." Which makes me nervous about what's beginning to pass for feeling these days. In case you forgot, a good solid Apatow example can be found in 40-Year Old Virgin, when Leslie Mann projectile vomits in Steve Carell's face, and he gives the gag a little more depth than usual: "Did you have a daiquiri tonight?" All of which was preceded by Mann burping up some pre-barf and proclaiming she had a shellfish sandwich earlier that day. Virgin actually managed an R rating, but my point here is that Carell is way above average in comedic talent, and I think Mann could hold her own with anyone in the business (I'm hoping for a second career after Apatow), yet there they are having to do a barf scene together. Don't even get me started on the most offensive part of the Apatow stuff, the heavy-handed formula that we've all been inundated with by now, the obvious combination of gross-out tactics with feel-good sentimentality where arrested-adolescent guys have trouble with girls because they do stupid, embarrassing, disgusting shit, then do more stupid, embarrassing, disgusting shit while trying to get girls, then offend girls deeply, then somehow totally redeem themselves in the last 10-12 minutes of the show. Virgin performed beyond expectations (stellar cast), but by the end of Knocked Up it's already a shameless design. (If somebody's going in for Mann, if you could save Paul Rudd too, that'd be great.)
Without going into countless other examples from the past 15 years (it's a really, really long shit-list), the shit-storm finally hit land with the release earlier this year of Miss March, a feeble and downright sad, I mean truly sad, attempt by a couple of guys who go by the names Zach Cregger and Trevor Moore. These idiots try to replicate only the worst instincts of the Farrellys, South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone, and a dash of Jim Carrey if he had absolutely no charm, charisma or talent whatsoever. The end product is the kind of winded, completely meritless offender that sometimes signals the end of an era. Let's all pray that it's at least not going where Cregger and Moore seem to envisage.
A side glimpse into where some of this shit has also come to gather: Any Hannah Montana fans out there? Catch an episode sometime, on the Disney Channel let's not forget, and see how many references to farting, shitting and barfing you can count. I got up to 8 one time during an episode where they have to try to hide her celebrity and the celebrity of a friend while waiting in line at a chili-dog concession. I'm not making that up. Her episodes seem to clock out at about 23 minutes. While Hannah and her friends dont have the luxury of using the exact words/images their adult movie counterparts get to explore, their allusions were as thinly veiled as anything I've seen outside Disney on basic cable, and downright crude. Call me what you will, but the fact is they really were downright crude on an episode of Hannah Montana. (A side glimpse to the side glimpse: One of the ways Hannah's celebrity friend initially hid his identity was dressing and sounding precisely like Borat.)
Blart's resistance to shit isn't why I think it's the best movie of 2009 so far (and I won't deny its been a weak year), but it is why I think it's an important one. If you can't tell by now, that's the hope of this piece, anyway. If just for some parity. Because maybe you've noticed that shit is starting to sprawl outside comedy. It's even receiving Oscar nominations in the double digits. The most recent jarring example of the shit-ploy can be found in the very popular Slumdog Millionaire in that scene where the kid jumps through a public outhouse and gets dunked in shit. Fully immersed, mind you. Now, you may argue that this scene is necessary to show exactly what kind of truly fucked up background this kid is coming from (he's really been shit on, get it?), to which I would respond: We need that? I think that's weird that we would need that in a movie to understand the deeply troubled background of a youth. I would also probably say something like that scene is so blatant in its shock-goal and so far-fetched that, not only does it not have any relation to the struggles of coming from a ghetto, but "creativity" itself takes a shit-bath as well. We don't need to see a young boy dunked in shit. If we do, we're sunk. In shit.
Granted, Slumdog was rated R, but this gives me an opportunity to talk a little bit about those kinds of movies that fool the public into thinking the R is due mostly to some serious content about hardship or something. Maybe a somber depiction of poverty or social injustices, that type of thing. Assuming you don't get the warning that only word-of-mouth could provide, you can be so misled by today's movie promotion standards that, by misled, I mean lied to. There are cases where you simply could never anticipate what truly lurks. Slumdog is one of those movies. I know more than a few people who thought this movie was actually going to be funny, and you can't really blame them when they've only seen snippets of the fun, energetic parts accompanied by a vague sense of the plot. And by vague, I mean lied to. The story of a young boy escaping the slums of Mumbai, eventually appearing on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and winning, just does not give anyone the chance to anticipate the shit-bath (and then some) that awaits them.
I'm comfortable in contending this not just because I was somewhat fooled (even though I know that, at this point, if rated R, there doesn't seem to be a single thing that a movie is prevented from showing), but I've heard other people out on the street complain they were tricked into seeing it as a family. Plus, I just have to say this, the dance scene at the end of the movie got a lot of publicity and praise, but I was insulted by its startling incongruency. Was that supposed to make me feel better? Did they create it only for the sake of including in vague, misleading promos that lie? To give another example of this kind of slight-of-hand, I'll give you a PG-13 rogue that had some people scratching their heads, though not due to excrement—the very grim The Dark Knight. Did you see this thing? Emphasis on Dark, I guess. I saw a lot of families and unaccompanied youngsters coming out of the theatre afterward just flat out looking like, What the hell? Some were literally saying, "What the hellll?"
But Dark Knight is merely a case of a movie generating a sense of social obligation to see it. The franchise was already building momentum with Christopher Nolan's intriguing makeover, then one of its charismatic stars, taking on one of the juiciest roles you can find, died just before its release, hence, "You didn't see Dark Knight? Do you live under a rock?" With Slumdog, I know it says R right there. And one should just know better by now. But sometimes on a nice summer night when the PG-13 alternative might be even bleaker, I could see where a mom might hope for the best. It isn't exactly The Sound of Music out there anymore.
Blart, though. Here's a guy raising a daughter and supporting his mother on a mall cop's wages, fastidious in his job, always willing to cover for co-workers and their lazy blunders, but hoping for better things by trying every year to become a member of the state highway patrol. Still, among all the things he does for others, he's missing the one thing that he needs most, love. Sound PG-style cheesy? Try the plot lines of some of the most beloved gross-outs and see if they register any lower in cheese quotient. There's Something About Mary: awkward, lonely guy needs love, falls in love with his first date in high school, enters adulthood and pursues/stalks her across country. (Visit Stiller's entire canon for variations on this one, peppered liberally with gross-out staples.) Dumb and Dumber: awkward, lonely guy needs love, falls in love with first woman who talks nicely to him, and pursues/stalks her across country. Borat: awkward, lonely foreigner needs love, falls in love with first beautiful woman he sees on American TV, and pursues/stalks Pam Anderson across country.
Blart is an awkward, lonely guy looking for love, but he doesn't need to somehow overcome an arrested development clinical in nature in order to find it. He just needs to add the final piece to what is a very adult existence. This makes for a different kind of comedy today. I'm actually going to call Blart valiant. I know there are people who love Kevin James. I never caught much of King of Queens and haven't seen his other Happy Madison appearances, so I went into Blart pretty much a clean slate. After viewing, I would challenge any of his higher-profile, higher-paid brethren to try making comic magic out of this premise the way that James did.
Speaking of which and what really gets me, though, is how our most talented comedic actors, some of them true forces of nature in the genre, feel the need to shit all over their movies in some sort of bizarre Hollywood-comedy version of maintaining street cred. Staying on the hip 18-35 radar, but also appealing to the basest instincts of children (sales). I'm a big irony-spotter. I love to spot irony. But even I can't pat myself on the back for seeing the neon-blinking twist here, where in order to maintain credibility with adult audiences and be considered a sharp talent among their peers, the best comedians of our time default to gags that never passed for being all that funny under the stairwell at 5th-grade recess.
Joe Redden Tigan’s first novel does not have enough commas. It says so right there in the Foreword magazine review. Despite that, Waggle was bumped to iUniverse's Star Book program and is currently being considered for an Independent Publisher’s Book Award.
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8.27.09 @ 9:38a
The dance scene at the end of Slumdog was a nod to Bollywood tradition.
8.27.09 @ 11:35a
You can start to see what might be on the horizon, though, when an Animal House (1978) or a Caddyshack (1980) or a Porky's (1982) starts to pop up here and there. Hard to imagine today, but each was rated R.
It's very easy to imagine. All three featured naked women.
Also, Leslie Mann is married to Judd Apatow, so my guess is she's gonna be in his movies for a long while.
joe redden tigan
8.27.09 @ 12:40p
Adam, to your point and God knows I hedged on including the entire MPAA definition of the PG-13 rating but this is a great example why I did, a reminder of some of the language from it: "More than brief nudity will require at least a PG-13 rating..." As I recall from those three movies, the nudity was relatively brief. Apparently by today's standards and according to the vaguery of the MPAA, even more than brief could still get you a PG-13. But here's my favorite part of the whole definition: "...but such nudity in a PG-13 rated motion picture generally will not be sexually oriented."
8.27.09 @ 4:02p
Well, sure. Except that PG-13 didn't exist when those movies came out. "If it's got boobs, it's R; if it's got really inappropriate sexual innuendo, it's PG."
Don't feel so bad for her. The puking in his mouth was her idea, if the commentary is to be believed.
joe redden tigan
8.29.09 @ 12:09p
True. They had no idea what they would soon be able to get away with.
8.29.09 @ 12:25p
Is the objection here with the MPAA's idiotic ratings system or with the ostensible rise in scatological content?
8.29.09 @ 11:03p
You're missing the point of a PG-13 rating altogether. Let me explain.
Your assumption that "anything with a below-R rating qualifies as family movie fare" is why you're completely wrong as hell. PG-13 is not intended to be "family fare" at all. It's a cue to the kids who aren't old enough to go to an "R" movie unescorted that they're going to get as close to "R" as the censors will allow. These are movies for the kids who don't want to be with their family at all. They want to be dropped off at the mall and they want as much bang for their buck as possible. They hope that the ever-pervasive sexuality, violence and drug use in media is going to get worse. They want to see all the stuff they aren't supposed to, and hope it's as bad as possible.
Only, all they are getting is poop jokes and the occasional naked butt.
Settle down; you're 1/2 a beat away from telling kids to get off your lawn.
joe redden tigan
8.30.09 @ 5:50p
Mike, both. They're part of an evil axis.
joe redden tigan
8.30.09 @ 6:09p
jeff, i understand your point completely and i agree with it in part (in fact, unless i'm off my nut, i kind of make the same point in the paragraph you quote from), but i still stand by my full statement. you're assuming you speak to practical family dynamics for kids and families everywhere. i'm assuming the MPAA is, in theory, asking for the family to work together, expecting the worst. let's face it, we're both fucked either way. settling down is what got us steeped in this shit to begin with.
and i do want those damn kids off my lawn. they keep taking huge dumps on it.