Movie 43 – Was It Really That Bad?

The most hated film of the 2010s now feels even more out of time than ever – but was it actually as awful as you have been told?

The sheer level of vitriol that was aimed at Movie 43 from mainstream critical quarters back in 2013 is fascinating. It reminds me of the way critics would traditionally line up, seemingly like lemmings, to all sing from the same hymn book about, say, violent horror movies or erotic films, or how they routinely share the same purse-lipped opinions about… well, everything. Unwilling to admit that they are taking a very middle-aged (either in years or mentality), middle-class approach to films that were clearly never aimed at them in the first place, they will instead pretend that they were bored, not shocked/offended/aroused by the film they had to watch. Like parents complaining about loud rock music, the critical establishment seemed to hate this film because it was tasteless and crass – which of course it is. That’s rather the point of the film.

With Movie 43, things were made worse by the absence of press shows – if there is one thing newspaper hacks hate, it’s the idea of having to pay to watch a film with the great unwashed. Inevitably, they see the absence of press as evidence that a film is irredeemably awful rather than an acknowledgement by distributors that a film aimed at teenagers is hardly going to work for a sour-faced fifty-something curmudgeon from The Guardian or the upright moralists of The Mail. Why waste money wining and dining hacks just so they can rubbish your latest release? The sense of critical entitlement to see everything that is released even though they clearly won’t like or understand it is fascinating, especially in the way that the sense of entitlement seems to increase with critics who earn a lot of money writing for major outlets. It definitely has the whiff of ‘don’t you know who I am’ about it. The fact that they have managed to convince the public that the lack of a press show automatically means that a film is terrible – as if the ponderous approval of a Peter Bradshaw or some pompous hack riding on the coattails of Roger Ebert somehow matters for a film aimed at teenage stoners. It’s misguided egotism of the highest order.

Not that this means Movie 43 is some sort of unfairly maligned masterpiece. It certainly isn’t that. But neither is it the complete disaster that it has been made out to be either. It is an entirely disposable film with the same strengths and weaknesses of almost every sketch-based movie (especially the multi-director ones like this), be it The Groove Tube, Loose Shoes, Kentucky Fried Movie or Amazon Women on the Moon (most of which also had critical drubbings when they were first released, funnily enough) – namely that it is too scattershot to really work as a complete movie, that for every good bit there is a pretty bad bit but that, at least, if you don’t like one skit, you might still enjoy the next one. The joy of the sketch film is that it doesn’t require any commitment – you can just switch your brain off and coast along. These films only really fail when they drag sketches out for too long (a failing they have in common with sketch-based TV) and that’s what makes them more suited to home viewing than a theatrical release. Watch this on DVD or streaming services and you can dip in and out as the mood takes you.

The main problem dogging this film is, in fact, that almost every sketch drags on for too long. Even the funny – or potentially funny – ones tend to over-egg the pudding, and what might have been amusing, like the opening skit with Kate Winslet going on a date with eligible bachelor Hugh Jackman only to find he has a pair of testicles hanging from his chin, hang around far too long. Had his testicles been the visual punchline, this would’ve been fairly amusing; going through the whole date is just overkill.

It’s the presence of Winslet, Jackman and a whole bunch of other stars – presumably attracted by producer Peter Farrelly and the brief time they’d need to be on set, ensuring a quick and easy payday between bigger projects – that seems to have especially offended a lot of critics who have a curious fanboy adulation of Hollywood celebrity and a genuine belief that these are superior beings that we should look up to, rather than overpaid fame junkies who will pretty much do anything if it pays well enough. How dare this crass film degrade these big names, these Gods in human form, by involving them in such filth? And how dare the actors kick loose and appear in something so utterly tasteless? I’ll be honest – the cast is sometimes (often) a distraction because clearly comedy is not the forte of everyone involved and no matter how you try to avoid it, you do find yourself ‘star spotting’ and being distracted by the novelty of Big Name Actor popping up every few minutes. Could the film have worked just as well without Liv Schreiber, Naomi Watts, Gerard Butler, Halle Berry and so on? Probably. But then, most films would probably be better without miscast big-name stars. If we’re going to trash movies for crowbarring famous actors into parts that would be better served by someone less famous, we’d better dump pretty every animated movie of the last twenty years for starters.

I’m painfully aware that, just like many a once-beloved sketch show from not so long ago, this film probably pulls all sorts of social justice triggers now – in the space of eight years, it has probably become even more offensive than it was on the original release and the teen audience that it was pitched at will probably now be the ones most offended by it. When the film first received its critical hammering, many of the ingrates originally involved lined up to distance themselves from it and I imagine that line is a lot longer now. Has anyone taken to social media to tearfully apologise for being involved in this film? It wouldn’t surprise me.

As Reprobate readers, if you haven’t yet seen Movie 43 (and that seems probable), perhaps I’m selling it to you right now with the suggestion that the film will upset the perpetually offended and outrage staid sensibilities across the board. Well, steady on there, rebel. I don’t want to send you off with the wrong impression. Movie 43 has moments that you might enjoy on a strictly fast-food, empty-calorie level, as long as you don’t expect any sort of sophistication and are not so po-faced that you can’t chuckle at a sex gag or a poop joke. In fact, both the sex gags and the poop jokes are the weakest parts of the film, but you get my point. However, it also has a lot that is pretty terrible and as I said earlier, much of it is dragged out for no good reason. This is a film that needed a more ruthless editor and the main problem here – much more than the bad taste – is self-indulgence.

What’s good? Will Graham’s Homeschooled, where a couple (Schreiber and Watts teach their kid at home but give him all the experiences of school life – bullying, sexual rejection – is fairly amusing, though again, it labours the point way past where it needs to go; Griffin Dunne’s Veronica is a nice two-hander of crude dialogue between Kieran Culkin and Emma Stone, ruined only by a weak ending; Brett Ratner’s Happy Birthday, with Johnny Knoxville and Seann William Scott capturing foul-mouthed leprechaun Butler is cheerfully crude and rude (with a punchline that will definitely have the more humourless tutting about crass sexism); and James Gunn’s Beezel is a neat piss-take of Garfield and the like, with the titular animated cat coming between Elizabeth Banks and Josh Duhamel. None of these skits is exactly a sketch for the ages but they are entertaining enough for a passing chuckle.

Considerably less amusing are Superhero Speed Dating, which seems to go on forever without raising a smile, iBabe (an MP3 player in the form of a naked woman that mutilates horny customers) and Victory’s Glory, a pointless pastiche of uplifting sports films. Sitting in the middle are Farrelly’s Truth or Dare – which has some amusingly tasteless moments but is let down by Halle Berry, who is no comic actor, and Stephen Merchant, who is no actor at all – and Middleschool Date, directed by Elizabeth Banks, which is a rather uncomfortable mix of teen sex with Jimmy Bennett and Chloë Grace Moretz and menstruation jokes that fall rather flat and leave a bit of a bad taste that is hardly compensated for with comedy. To complain about bad taste in this film might seem ludicrous, but here it simply feels crass and creepy rather than outrageous.

The film is also damaged by the linking sequence. Now, let me qualify this. For some reason, the UK version has a different linking story than the US cut, which has the skits presented as part of a movie pitch. I haven’t seen that cut (apparently, it’s on the UK Blu-ray as an alternate version but I can’t honestly say that I have the urge to seek it out) but the British version is a horrible effort with a couple of stoners and an annoying brat searching the internet for the fabled banned film Movie 43 and somehow bringing about the end of the world. It’s terrible and – stop me if you’ve heard this before – goes on way too long.

So clearly, Movie 43 is far – very, very far – from perfect. But is it ‘the worst film ever made’? Hardly, and anyone who says that probably needs to expand their viewing parameters (or not, because I can’t imagine how they’d cope with some of the genuine awfulness that is out there). I’ve seen far worse comedies in recent years – pretty much any Scary Movie, for a start – and while I can’t see this film ever achieving the rehabilitation that those previously mentioned sketch movies have had, it may eventually well find a devoted audience of teenage boys – some of whom might end up writing movie blogs or magazine reviews in the future. Hey, just look at some of the Eighties crap now hailed as classic cinema. Then again, that will probably take a giant cultural shift and an acceptance of the idea that mere mockery is not an expression of hate and violence. I’m not holding my breath for the day when this film achieves classic status. But there are people out there who seriously think The Toxic Avenger is a joyful horror-comedy classic, so anything is possible. Time is a great healer and nostalgia is a powerful drug.

DAVID FLINT

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