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ON FILM: Do Wild Hogs watchers know what they're missing?

By Philip Martin

This article was published March 9, 2007 at 3:52 a.m.

john-travolta-william-h-macy-tim-allen-martin-lawrence-in-the-touchstone-pictures-release-of-wild-hogs

John Travolta, William H. Macy, Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence in the Touchstone Pictures release of "Wild Hogs."

— Last weekend, more than twice as many Americans paid to see Wild Hogs as paid to see either David Fincher's Zodiac or Craig Brewer's Black Snake Moan. Wild Hogs raked in a robust (for March) $39.5 million to win the weekend; Zodiac made a little over $13 million, and Black Snake Moan - in about half as many theaters as Zodiac and a little more than a third as many as Wild Hogs - brought in $4 million.

I don't think we need to cry about the financial fortunes of any of these films; according to the Web site Box Office Mojo (boxofficemojo.com), Wild Hogs did quite a bit better than projections, while Zodiac performed as expected and Black SnakeMoan was a little "soft." Nobody suffered any catastrophic reversal, nobody got murdered, the world didn't wobble on its axis.

The same thing happens that always happens - people went to see a crummy, tedious movie, and a lot fewer people went to see two movies that are deeply interesting. That's the way it goes: Given a choice, people prefer to be comforted rather than challenged.

An editor I admire once observed that it made no sense to send a restaurant critic to a fast food or a chain restaurant because the people who ate in those kinds of places obviously don't care about the kind of values restaurant critics are obliged to defend. Histheory was, those indiscriminate diners get what they deserve - and probably like it.

My view is a little different; I think from time to time we all find ourselves eating a gas station burrito and enjoying it. Maybe we're not proud of ourselves for doing so, but as the point guards all say, it is what it is. So I'm aware that a movie doesn't necessarily have to be "good" to be enjoyable, and that there's something inherently silly about trying to write seriously about seriously silly movies.

Yet we do try to review everything that opens in Arkansas, from German arthouse films and pre-emptive Hollywood blockbust-ers to genuinely independent films that only get shown because their producers are willing to rent a theater (or hang up a bedsheet in a church's fellowship hall). Movie critics aren't like restaurant critics - we can't afford to ignore the cinematic equivalent of Mickey D's and IHOP.

So the problem is, how do you write about the kind of films that are made for the kind of people who don't pay any attention to what critics say about the movies? Does it make any sense to try to make sense of something like Wild Hogs, the No. 1 movie in America - and most likely the worst film I've seen in six months?

I think it does, and I think the opening of a movie like Wild Hogs ought to provide a film critic with an occasion to do more than simply crack wise and flatter those readers who agree with him. There are few things more fun - well, maybe more than a few things, but you get the point - than ripping on a big, expensive and inevitably successful Hollywood movie. After all, it hurts no one to make fun of these monstrosities - the actors get paid, the producers make their money and a director's bankability has way more to do with selling tickets than critical reputation. We can toss our pebbles at their tanks if it makes us feel better.

But it's more difficult, and less gratifying, to actually consider the thing at hand - certainly to think about why and where the filmmakers went wrong, but maybe more importantly to try to understand why the movies bother us so much while entertaining those (Variety calls them "mall auds") who expect no more from a movie than a chance to escape into the dark for a couple of hours, holed up with buckets of popcorn and soda.

In her review of Wild Hogs last week, Karen Martin succinctly deduced the central problem of thefilm - no one was actually trying to do anything other than produce another waste of time. Wild Hogs is obviously a movie where everyone involved is more interested in commerce than art, a weakly written, desultory affair where the high-profile actors don't even pretend to any connection other than the lucrative synergy of their names above the title.

In many ways, Wild Hogs is the worst type of movie - a cynical affair that means to rob its audience by promising a romping good time it has no intention of delivering. I really think a lot of the people involved - people whose participation in the project made the film viable - should be ashamed. As far as I'm concerned the film takes advantage of its audience.

Still, at the screening, people laughed. Why is a genuine mystery to me - maybe it's because they got in free and they wanted to be entertained. I suspect it has something to do with being in a crowd and watching colored lights on a big screen. I'm sure some people genuinely enjoyed Wild Hogs, I'm just not sure why.

I'm pretty sure those people aren't stupid any more than the people who eat fish sandwiches in their cars are stupid. I think they don't know any better, that they have different expectations for movies than most people who read movie reviews. And while I don't know how to make them read movie reviews, I want them to know they're being had, that while an occasional hot dog can be sublime, a steady diet of them would prove not only dull but dangerous. I'd like them to at least taste some of what they're missing:

"Come on, just a bite. Try some Fellini, some John Ford, a little Wong Kar Wai. You mightlike it."

But then, those folks aren't reading this column.

E-mail:

pmartin@arkansasonline.com

MovieStyle, Pages 43, 48 on 03/09/2007

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