Holiday lite? Not these movies

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Horn is a Times staff writer

The timing just wasn’t right.

It’s a statement Hollywood executives often use to explain a movie’s failure at the box office. It’s not the movie’s fault, they say, but external circumstances beyond its control: cold weather, the Olympics, anthrax scares, anything that might keep moviegoers home.

But what is often a hollow excuse has become an increasingly reasonable justification for how poorly movies about difficult subject matter have been faring. In the middle of anxious and unsure political and economic times, film fans have been hesitant to head to the multiplex to witness even more heartache.

Almost every recent drama about a thorny subject -- especially Middle East conflict, most spectacularly with October’s bomb, “Body of Lies” -- has struggled at the box office. And this holiday season holds new movies about an array of plot lines that hardly scream Christmas: failing marriages, drug addiction, Nazis, broken homes, sexual abuse, suicide.


Some filmmakers are looking for any opportunity to make their films feel more upbeat. In his cattle-drive epic, “Australia,” writer-director Baz Luhrmann changed the period film’s original ending, making it less tragic, he says, “in response to the world we are in now.”

It’s an understandable feeling. Viewer demand for escapism has most likely increased the fortunes of any number of mindless comedies, including “Beverly Hills Chihuahua,” “Four Christmases” and “Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa.”

So where does that leave December’s films? Will hard-edged topicality be an albatross or an opportunity? Early results have been surprising.


Few new movies are benefiting as much from their newsworthiness as “Milk,” the biography of slain gay rights activist Harvey Milk. Supported by strong reviews (especially for star Sean Penn) and positive word-of-mouth, the film, in its first weekend, generated the nation’s second-highest single-theater gross, as “Milk” in San Francisco’s Castro Theatre trailed only “Bolt” at Hollywood’s El Capitan Theatre.

Although it’s impossible to assign “Milk” a precise monetary benefit from the continuing debate over Proposition 8 and the ordination of a gay bishop in the Episcopal Church, it’s clear that the film -- which grossed an estimated $2.6 million last weekend in limited release and has grossed $7.6 million since premiering Nov. 26 -- has become part of the conversation on gay and lesbian rights.

“It’s almost like art imitating reality -- it’s definitely a factor,” says Jack Foley, president of distribution for Focus Features. “It’s energizing our culture -- and beyond the specific core audience. It’s touching a nerve.” Foley notes that “Milk” is now drawing a greater percentage of straight patrons at this point in its release than Focus’ “Brokeback Mountain” did three years ago.


Political subject

Even though the George Bush biography “W.” floundered, another new movie about an equally unpopular president -- “Frost/Nixon” -- is performing remarkably well, grossing an incredible $60,000 a theater in its first weekend of release while playing in three locations, and about $630,000 overall in the past weekend, after expanding to 39 theaters.

After considering releasing “Frost/Nixon” this fall before the presidential election, Universal Pictures decided to premiere the fictionalized drama of 1977’s televised debates between Richard Nixon and David Frost on Dec. 5. As Peter Morgan, the writer of the screenplay and the hit play, sees it, that distance -- coupled with the election’s outcome -- may have made the audience’s hearts grow fonder.

“Their releasing it after the election has been curiously liberating,” Morgan says. Though Morgan and director Ron Howard intended audiences to draw comparisons between Nixon and President Bush, they didn’t want their movie to be didactic, which might have happened had it come out earlier and the course of the nation not shifted on Nov. 4.

“Because Bush has lost, or his policies have lost, he’s now rather like the Nixon character,” Morgan says. “He’s been rejected and ejected, and that empowers the audience -- they are now free of him, and his yoke.” That allows moviegoers to see the movie as a modern allegory, not a historical lecture, Morgan says. “You need to let an audience create a narrative in their own head, more than creating a narrative for them to follow,” he says.

With pretty much every American agonizing over the economy, two other new movies are trying to take a fresh look at materialism and its inherent shortcomings.

When screenwriter Simon Beaufoy sat down to adapt the novel “Q & A” to the screenplay for “Slumdog Millionaire,” there was no love story between the game show’s contestant, Jamal, and his long-lost childhood crush, Latika. But Beaufoy couldn’t get excited about a story in which a cash prize was the protagonist’s reward.


“I just didn’t think money was a great motivator,” Beaufoy says. “You don’t leave a theater singing about someone who gets a Rolex watch. But Jamal is not on the show to win 20 million rupees. He’s there to find the woman he loves.”

In inventing the film’s central romantic relationship -- and thus making Jamal’s quest emotional, rather than fiscal -- Beaufoy may have tapped into a feeling that’s more pervasive in uncertain economic times: that money doesn’t last but love might. Even with the film’s subplots of torture and child abuse, ticket buyers are responding in force, as director Danny Boyle’s film grossed an estimated $2.2 million over the weekend on 169 screens, for a total take of $8.1 million since opening on Nov. 12.

‘A very hopeful film’

“It’s a very interesting time for this movie to come out,” says Beaufoy. “It’s a very hopeful film coming out at a time when people are looking for some hope -- and they find it not in stocks and shares but in other people.”

“Seven Pounds” screenwriter Grant Nieporte had a hunch the economy was doomed -- he sold all his stocks a year ago and urged friends and family to unload real estate. Though the collapsing economy did not directly inspire his screenplay about self-sacrifice, it did inform the film’s dramatic shape, the screenwriter says.

“What it made me want to examine is more of the universal truths: What are we living for?” Nieporte says. “What does it mean to love your neighbor in this day and age? Where are consumerism and materialism leading us?”

In the opening moments of the film, premiering Friday, Ben Thomas (Will Smith) is making a 911 call to report a suicide -- his own. As the story unfolds, we learn that Thomas feels responsible for a deadly accident and has set out to atone in the most generous way he thinks possible.


“I hope that as people are losing confidence in material possessions,” Nieporte says, “they are opening themselves up to other questions, such as, what is truly important in life?”

Darren Aronofsky’s “The Wrestler,” opening Wednesday, is an often unsettling account of Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke). He’s a blue-collar wrestler, practically homeless, estranged from his daughter, hooked on drugs and, although he plays to adoring crowds, essentially alone.

But like so many working-class people struggling to get by, Randy is hardly a quitter, even when his health fails. “I hope his humanity comes across and that it inspires people,” Aronofsky says. “He’s kind of this aging symbol of the American empire -- he’s just trying to keep his chin up and move forward.”

‘Road’s’ way

Beyond the economy, some holiday movies have other obstacles to overcome. Even without a recession, would audiences clamor for a movie about a crumbling marriage, like Dec. 26’s Oscar contender “Revolutionary Road”?

Star Leonardo DiCaprio knows that the adaptation of Richard Yates’ bleak novel is not what audiences typically queue up for. “Let’s be honest,” he says. “It doesn’t have enormous spectacle and set pieces.”

But maybe, like some of these other challenging films, its timing won’t be so bad after all.