Recently, some film critics have noted a resurgence in "feel good films," the sort of fun, mindless entertainment that one watches when things are starting to get difficult in the real world.
Citing the inexplicable popularity of Beverly Hills Chihuahua, some suggest that the stalled economy has left moviegoers yearning for the kinds of films that will enable them to forget about the difficulties of everyday life.
Admittedly, there is a fair bit of evidence to back up this idea. The top ten movies over the past month or so have skewed heavily escapist, with goofy comedies, sex farces, children's films, and violent fantasy flicks all doing quite well. In fact, even the few movies set in the "real" world were either civics lessons that peaked around the time of the elections (Oliver Stone's W) or period pieces, like The Secret Life of Bees and Changeling. As far as contemporary America was concerned, it basically has served as the background for unrealistically redemptive, feel-good comedies (Soul Men, Role Models, Sex Drive) or romances (Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Nights in Rodanthe).And, no, High School Musical 3 doesn't exist in the real world. It exists in a parallel Disney universe, where Zach Efron is straight and high school students aren't awkward, obsessively self-conscious conglomerations of bad style choices, squeaky voices, and overactive sebaceous glands.
Admittedly, parsing the last couple of months of cinema like this might be something of a stretch; after all, most movies are, at their heart, unrealistic. However, coming off the biopic frenzy of the last few years and the heavy push toward realistic drama, the most popular offerings at the movie theaters definitely represent a big step away from the complexities of day-to-day life.
There's a good reason for this: when things get rough and confusing, audiences want to see a world that makes sense, where good is honored, evil is punished, and love reigns triumphant. To a cynical observer, this may seem simplistic or unsophisticated, but that is exactly the point. In escapist movies, every problem, no matter how complex, gets tied up in two hours. This enables audiences to briefly occupy a space where life is fair.
In the movies, Dick Fuld would go to jail; in real life, he is still on the board at Lehman Brothers, where he continues to draw a salary. In the movies, an asteroid would hit one of the resorts where AIG holds its regular bacchanals; in real life, the taxpayers are now picking up the bill for these little soirees. In the movies, mean old Mr. Potter is defeated in the final reel by Jimmy Stewart. In real life, however, his body double, Hank Paulson, is currently dispersing billions of dollars of taxpayers' money in a way that is completely incomprehensible.
Speaking of It's a Wonderful Life, it's worth noting that the so-called "Golden Age of Cinema" pretty much got its start in the Great Depression, when feel-good flicks and escapist films rolled out of Hollywood by the truckload. From the Wizard of Oz to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Top Hat to King Kong the Depression years were chock full of spectacles and morality tales that helped people forget about the miseries of their daily lives.
While the "feel-good movie index" may not be the best way to gauge the economy, it certainly has its uses. More to the point, I'm not going to rest easy until talking dog movies have migrated their way out of the top 20!
Bruce Watson is a freelance writer, blogger, and all-around cheapskate. "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" is currently the 11th most popular movie in the country, which makes him very nervous.
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