Doing well at the box office is not half as important as how that success is framed by its producers in the weeks surrounding a movie's release -- especially in the summer.
Such bold claims as "the biggest opening in June for a non-sequel based on a book" and "the #1 comedy in America" (this despite the fact that it came in fourth) strikes me as parody every time I see it tried. But that's what Hollywood likes to keep track of and notes in the trade journals in increasingly exotic attempts to claim some kind of #1 status.
Shrek 2 is not only the #1 Movie in the country this summer, it is also the #1 Comedy and the #1 Family Film. But that doesn't stop Raising Helen from boasting that it is the #1 Romantic Comedy in America. And that may well be true.
But the openings fade. The splash of selling it the first weekend -- and not totally crashing in the second -- soon gives way to a more important point: Is it any good?
I see a lot more movies before they are released these days and I admit to getting blindly caught up in hype. It's been an interesting summer so far and I've learned something new about movies, and my taste in them, every week. I also like to keep assessing as the summer goes on -- just to see.
In hindsight, for instance, I like Troy a lot less today than when I walked out of the theater the night I saw it. I was impressed with the restraint of the special effects and the way the CGI supported the plot instead of the other way around. I was also happy to see an attempt to bring a classic story to life. If one little child out there wants to pick up a book based on a movie... Well, I know I'm dreaming on that. But there's a part of me that won't give up on the idea that some movies should be good for us. And though they took a broadsword to Homer, with a Hollywood ending for Brad Pitt as Achilles, at least they tried.
How one movie matches up to the others being released at the same time has an effect on my reaction too. I think I had a better impression of Troy because I was still reeling from Van Helsing. (Now there's a movie that gets worse with time.) And I was so grateful to see the special effects in Troy used wisely after seeing Van Helsing which smothered us in little else, that I overcompensated in my praise for it.
Likewise this week's Harry Potter strikes me as so much better than Shrek 2 for so many reasons, that I have become an unlikely booster. I am a big proponent of children's movies. What a special time that is for kids. Why then do they have to be yanked into crassness and adult cynicism as they are in Shrek 2? Harry Potter strikes me as a much more magical film than Shrek. But look at the numbers. Harry will get bashed for being just a kid's flick, but to me that's the charm. It's telling to me that we care more about getting parents into the theaters than their children. The biggest fans of Shrek I've encountered have all been Boomers. Why can't kids' films be just for kids? Well, because they make more money when aimed at adults too.
And when it comes to crassness, movies like Soul Plane make me long for the goofiness and good, clean fun of the original Airplane! Will that affect how I look at the silly Dodgeball next week starring Ben Stiller. No doubt about it.
Whenever I think I'm wrong in my distrust of what everyone is proclaiming to be the #1 Movie In America, I think about Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton. Lloyd was a master at the big, pop hits. He knew what he was doing. And his movies were all safe and simple concepts aimed at the broad middle of the world. Keaton was a hit-maker too, but not like the All-American Lloyd. Lloyd was the box office champ, but I'd rather see a Keaton movie any day. Movies and our perceptions of them change with time, and the immediate reaction to this week's hit changes. One thing is sure; our immediate response to a film is almost always incomplete.
What will audiences in fifty years make of all those in-jokes about Hollywood in Shrek 2? Will they love the Joan Rivers gag or the COPS parody or even care? I don't know. But I am drawn to the timeless, the magical, the special, not the special effect. And hype is just one of Hollywood's special affectations. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
And even I can take a lesson from that. After all if it weren't for the popularity of hype, how would I have become:
The #1 Movie Critic In America!*
*For an Internet reviewer that is also a screenwriter living in Los Angeles.