The Summer Of The R-Rated Comedy

HORRIBLE BOSSES marks the fourth hit R-rated comedy this summer. What will Hollywood learn from these films?

It’s official: R-rated comedies are back and in a big way. They’ve been staging a serious resurgence the last couple of years, but this summer it feels like they’re really hitting their stride. The story coming into Summer 2011 was that we had a whole bunch of superhero movies on deck; well, none of those have really set the world on fire (although Thor has done okay), but it’s the quiet legion of R-rated movies that have really cleaned up.

The latest R-rated success story is Horrible Bosses, coming in second this weekend with 28 million bucks. That put it ahead of the family friendly Zookeeper, and in and of itself is something of a victory. Bosses opens north of Bridesmaids (which I still think is THE box office story of 2011, by the way) and just south of Bad Teacher, which is at almost 80 million right now. And then there’s The Hangover Part II, which has made a stunning 250 million bucks.

None of these are particularly hard Rs - I’m trying to remember if there’s any nudity in any of these non-Hangover films and can’t quite recall any. The language is what gets these R ratings, which I guess could mean that people feel more comfortable bringing teens. Whatever the case, they’re technically adult-oriented films which are doing well in a summer landscape that’s generally brain death-oriented. Also out there, showing hope for grown up movies - Midnight In Paris which, unadjusted for inflation, will be the biggest Woody Allen movie ever. Adjusted for inflation it drops drastically but it’s doing really well and, even though it’s a PG-13, is a film that is squarely aimed at a post-college and older audience. And it’s succeeding!

Yeah, none of these films will make what Transformers: You Got Mooned will make (some possibly won’t make in their whole run what that movie makes in ten days), but they cost a pittance of what Transformers cost. That means they’re wildly profitable. But I worry that the lesson Hollywood takes will be the wrong one, and that two summers from now we’ll be seeing a whole raft of terrible ‘adult’ comedies. The R-rated films you’re seeing this summer are direct responses to the first The Hangover, and the success of four other such comedies will embolden the studios to keep getting raunchy.

Which I’m not against, but I think the lesson of Summer 2011 is this: be cheap. Make the movies cheaply and you will make a profit on them. Making 150 million on a 20 million dollar movie is really great and it’s really sustainable. And at those price points you can take chance, or at least try to make good movies. When film budgets get really high - Transformers high - there’s no attempt to be any good, just to create spectacle that will entice moviegoers.

So what will happen in 2013? Will we have a whole slate of mid-range, smart and possibly even good movies hitting theaters? Or will the remakes of Animal House and Meatballs finally get off the ground? Sadly, I suspect the second.