Movies for Grownups

There's a lot for adults to mourn these days, culturally speaking -- the death of newspapers, the death of books, and now, apparently, the death of movies.

Not all of them, of course. Paul Blart endures. But movies for grownups seem to be in trouble. You can't pick up a newspaper, if you still do that sort of thing, without reading another article about the new studio decree: They're not making adult dramas anymore.

You can't really blame them. The most recent ones -- State of Play, Body of Lies, Syriana, even the terrific Michael Clayton -- haven't done much business. And the studios have a plausible explanation: There are just too many other things to do on Friday night. Netflix, HBO, YouTube, Kindle, a game of Wii with the kids.

It's a decent argument. But there's a decent argument the other way too -- namely, that the problem here isn't the genre. It's these particular films.

Three other dramas this year, Benjamin Button, Slumdog Millionaire, and Gran Torino, did very nicely indeed. And in the not-too-distant past, some pretty highbrow dramas have made a bundle -- The Departed, Traffic, A Beautiful Mind, Schindler's List, and on a smaller scale, The Queen.

Now it's easy enough -- and a good parlor game -- to try to distinguish each of these hits. There's the well-settled exception for heroes with a mental disability (Beautiful Mind), and for dramas with some fantasy element (Benjamin Button). There's the exception for movies directed by either Steven Spielberg (Schindler) or Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino), and for dramas about old people (The Bucket List) and minorities (American Gangster). There even seems to be an emerging exception for dramas that end -- however brutally they begin -- with a music video set in a train station (Slumdog).

It's not that the studios have tried and failed with adult dramas; they've just tried and failed with one particular subgenre -- what people in the business call the "70s movie." The key texts here are Chinatown, The Conversation, and Three Days of the Condor. They're movies about glum, damaged men who challenge, and are generally outfoxed by, sinister government organizations. The tone of the movies is deeply skeptical.

It so happens that I'm devoted to these films; they're why I became a producer. And I'd venture to say that, for many of us who work in movies, they're the template, the Platonic form, of the adult drama.

But wonderful as they are, they're period pieces, grounded in the politics and aesthetics of that era. Sad to say, it's no longer the default state of thoughtful people to distrust authority, and to deify journalists with very messy desks.

More important: Whatever the politics of the audience or the filmmaker, new movies need to do new things -- that's the art part -- and this recent batch just isn't doing it. They're elegantly made, with good acting and good dialogue, but they hew too closely to their 70s models. At this point, the postures and obsessions of their heroes seem tired. (Another subject for another day: There used to be a handful of young stars who were a sure bet to carry these movies, and now there's only one -- Will Smith. Why is that?)

The irony of the new decree is that it writes off the one demographic group that, historically, has loved movies above all else -- that remembers, wistfully, when film was the essential medium, when moviegoing was churchgoing. Kids today may be "platform-agnostic" -- as happy to watch a film on an iPhone as to go out to the Arclight -- but grownups aren't.

And it's not as if they aren't going to theaters anymore. They went to Dark Knight and the Jason Bourne pictures, in droves. Now admittedly, those are movies with real visual scale. But they went to The Departed too, and to Traffic. If even half of the grownups who went to those movies went to State of Play, everything would be fine. The truth is, the new dramas feel old, and while children may love seeing the same movie over and over, adults don't.

Soon enough, though, some screenwriter's going to send in a script, and the hero will have bright new conflicts and bright new demons, and a studio will get excited, and audiences will get excited, and then we'll all remember how durable the form really is.