A little more than two weeks ago, when much of the US movie-critic population was in Cannes pushing and shoving our way into four or five movies a day, the news arrived from back home that the general public did not appear to share our zeal. For the third spring in a row, the box-office grosses and the number of tickets sold for first-run theatrical releases had fallen, data that provoked concern and speculation in Hollywood and in the industry trade papers. What could be keeping people away from the movies? Bad weather? Economic uncertainty? The high price of gasoline? The angry and polarized political climate?
Those are interesting theories, but there may be a simpler explanation: The movies that the major studios and their subsidiaries have released this year have just not been very good. And their mediocrity appears to be less a matter of accident than of design. Looking back at the last 20 weeks, you can find some serviceable examples of familiar genres -- tame romantic comedy (Hitch), uplifting sports melodrama (Coach Carter), all-ages action adventure (Sahara), star-driven political thriller (The Interpreter) -- all of which have earned decent returns, and even some admiring reviews. But none of them have inspired much excitement or argument, and missing any (or all) of them would not feel like a great loss. They will each show up eventually on basic cable some night when you have nothing else to do, or on the transcontinental flight when your iPod battery is dead and you've forgotten to pick up the latest issue of Vanity Fair. You'll watch with a shrug and maybe a smile, in all likelihood rendering a judgment consistent with the ambitions of the picture in question: not bad.
From where I sit, not bad is very bad indeed. The commitment to meticulously engineered mediocrity suggests that the US movie industry, in its timid, defensive attempts not to alienate the audience, is doing just that.
I am aware that the springtime malaise is, to some extent, a seasonal complaint, one to which critics are especially susceptible. In May it's always the death of cinema, and by December the golden age is upon us once again. What else is new? Distributors save their good stuff for the last quarter of the year, in the hopes of harvesting awards and nominations. In the summer, they roll out their blockbusters, leaving the months from January to May for clearance sales and placeholders -- movies that need be good enough only to satisfy someone's desire to get out of the house. If you want something more, the previous autumn's crop of Oscar contenders and 10-best-list laureates is newly available on DVD. Many of those high-quality theatrical releases crowding the calendar between Labor Day and New Year's Eve are, from an economic standpoint, dry runs for the home-video market. The accolades and prizes look good on the DVD box, especially in April, when the discriminating film lover, uninspired by the multiplex marquee, decides to catch up with the pictures everyone seemed to be talking about a few months before.
So the public, glutted with savories for three months, must make do with leftovers for the other nine. This is not a healthy diet, and it has some unfortunate side effects -- good winter movies that meet with spiteful backlashes or critical neglect; weak spring offerings whose mere willingness to deal with serious subjects or grown-up behavior makes them look better than they are. (This spring Crash and The Upside of Anger are the examples that come most readily to mind.)