Rethinking marijuana in the movies

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A minor ruckus has erupted in Hollywood over the R rating assigned to the Meryl Streep romantic comedy, “It’s Complicated,” as reported in The Times’ Dec. 10 post on the Company Town blog, “It’s complicated, but ‘It’s Complicated’ will be released with an R rating.” According to The Times, those familiar with the Motion Picture Assn. of America’s hearing on the movie say a scene featuring “pot smoking with no bad consequences” was key to the decision. But imagine the ratings wars that the MPAA’s latest warnings will ignite:

“This film is rated R for brief alcohol use portrayed in a positive light.”

“This film is rated R for pervasive cigarette smoking by sympathetic characters.”

“This film is rated R for aberrant overeating and intense caloric consumption.”

Wait, you say you haven’t seen these warnings? Not a one? That’s because the MPAA, the powerful group that rates movies, has never much cared for consistency. So, while few parents would want their children to engage in any of the activities listed above -- let alone the violence frequently splattered across screens -- only in the most extreme cases do these behaviors move the MPAA to issue an R rating.


But illicit drugs are a different story, and the MPAA seems intent on scrubbing even less-restrictive ratings clean of any depiction of marijuana that fails to show the substance in a sufficiently negative light.

The ratings board made its intentions clear when it slapped an R rating on “It’s Complicated” for including a brief, realistic depiction of adult marijuana use. The movie also briefly bares the buttocks of a double for Alec Baldwin. But according to industry insiders, the reason for the R rating is marijuana: The film dares to show beloved stars Baldwin and Streep casually using marijuana and enjoying it, followed by Streep dangling a joint in front of Steve Martin, all without suffering any adverse consequences.

To be fair, it is complicated. The MPAA empowers parents to make informed choices about their kids’ viewing habits. But in this case, the characters are doing nothing more than what countless American adults do responsibly every day.

And when you consider the current social and political landscape -- in which California lawmakers are considering legislation to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol and 13 states have legalized marijuana for medical use -- you have to wonder whether we’re just burying our heads in the sand when we pretend that marijuana hasn’t already gone mainstream. Wouldn’t it be better to acknowledge reality and be honest and direct with kids, sending the simple message that marijuana, like alcohol, is for adults, and as a society we can manage it rationally and responsibly?

In the meantime, our children do have other, more wholesome film options that carry the lesser rating of PG-13. Consider, for example, the ambitious epic “2012,” which tells the heartwarming story of global annihilation just a few years down the road. On a more intimate scale, there’s the inspirational “Armored,” featuring a crew of gun-toting armored guards who plot a robbery that goes violently awry. Alternately, adolescents can check out the latest incarnation of “Sherlock Holmes.” It’s generously packed with violence and pipe puffing, but the MPAA tagged it PG-13, so it must be OK for kids.

Ultimately, between TV and the Internet, movies and video games, real life and imaginary play, kids these days are going to be exposed to just about everything. So the idea that we can keep them in the dark about adult marijuana use makes no more sense than refusing to talk to kids about sex and hoping they won’t discover it themselves.


It is true that images have an impact, and words have an impact, so parents are right to be attentive to what their kids watch, hear and do. But it’s also true that the example that kids follow most closely is not what they see on the screen but what they experience in their own home. The MPAA can issue ratings in the name of protecting the children from now until the end of time -- or 2012, whichever comes first -- but in this case, the only people they’re really sheltering from the truth are themselves.

Robert Ablon is a writer living in Oakland.