Somewhere in the world, maybe in a dusty old rotting liberal-arts faculty lounge, maybe in the office where they make that McSweeney's-Grantland Quarterly thing, someone is really excited about The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It's a "light" comedy opening Friday that stars Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith and Tom Wilkinson, which is to say The Avengers for those whose balls are particularly pruney. It is this summer's first, but not only, Dreaded Movie For Grownups.
The Dreaded Movie for Grownups shows up every year. Usually it announces itself as part of a sidebar in a larger summer movie preview. (Here's a representative sample.) These are summer movies for the people who disdain summer movies, the people who have this (mostly false) notion that summer movies are somehow dumber than the movies any other season of the year. On a basic level, these films are simply counterprogramming, Lifetime running a Meredith Baxter-Birney marathon opposite the Super Bowl, Spike TV showing Rambo opposite the Oscars.
(Side note: I'm still not sure people appreciate just how fantastically violent Sylvester Stallone's 2008 Rambo was. There was honestly a second after I watched that movie when I wondered if Stallone was some sort of surrealist genius.)
In 2009, we had Julia & Julia, Away We Go, Taking Woodstock—aka, that fortnight when people actually thought Demetri Martin was the next big movie star. Last year, it was Larry Crowne; Crazy, Stupid, Love; Everything Must Go and the premium example, the one everyone's trying to be this year, Midnight In Paris. (Fine, yes, I loved that one. Others convincingly disagree.) This year's entrants: Marigold Hotel, Hysteria, Hope Springs.
The thing about these Dreaded Movies For Grownups is that they're just as cynical and calculated as the big special-effects-addled Hollywood movies they're supposedly so much smarter than. They're movies for people who think they're above summer movies ... but don't actually want to go through the trouble of visiting an art house. They're the cinematic equivalent of buying Ikea rather than Target, Chipotle rather than Taco Bell, Coach rather than Old Navy. You think you're getting something better, but you're not: You're just taking comfort in a brand name.
Collectively, this summer's big three Movies For Grownups mark off all the major boxes on the You're Better Than Michael Bay checklist:
• Period piece. (Hysteria.)
• "Alternative" movie star who positions him/herself outside the action-movie realm. (Hysteria, Hope Springs.
• Lots of middle-range actors gathering and combining their powers like Voltron. (All three.)
• Aging movie stars clinging desperately to the notion that you still recognize them, also known as the Larry Crowne principle. (Exotic Marigold, Hope Springs.)
• Meryl Streep. (Hope Springs.)
• Vanilla inoffensiveness, wrapped up in a "light comic" package. (All three, and all the movies we're talking about here.)
These are movies for your mom. (That is to say, whether you want to admit it or not, every year they're a little bit more for you.) When you can't agree on what to see, they're something everyone can agree not to care about enough to hate.
Timid ambitions make for tepid results. Last year, the vulgar big-summer-movie industrial complex gave us the genuine entertainment of Bridesmaids and the final Harry Potter film. Two years ago came Toy Story 3 and Inception. In 2009, Star Trek, Inglourious Basterds and District 9. All of those films—and some of the more anticipated films this year, like The Dark Knight Rises and Prometheus and The Avengers—were braver works of art than your frothy little Meryl Streep boomer romantic comedy.
The summer is when what America does best—create shockingly expensive, massive, all-encompassing spectacle—is on display for the world to see. It's the summer. It's time to blow shit up. It's what we do best, and dammit, it's just honest. Ignoring that to see Tommy Lee Jones reinvigorate his Midwestern marital passion is perverse.
In a perfect world, we just combine the summer movie and the anti-summer movie, and let Helen Mirren blow people away with a machine gun.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.