Javier Bardem stars in "Biutiful." (Jose Haro / Roadside Attractions )
Beaten down by the recession? Want a sunny respite from the dreary weather? Need two hours to get away from the holiday stress? Hollywood has the answer: movies about a crumbling marriage, a 4-year-old's death in a car accident and a single father dying of cancer.
The fall and winter movie seasons always deliver some demanding dramas, but the gloom factor this year feels so intense that "127 Hours" — in which the lead character hacks off his own arm — plays like a bubbly comedy in comparison. Although film critics are embracing many of these challenging works, the box-office results from a couple of early entrants suggest that audiences might not be that interested in crying a river.
Late December's downbeat lineup includes last Friday's "Rabbit Hole," in which Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart star as a wife and husband trying to recover from their young son's fatal accident, and two films out Wednesday: "Blue Valentine," in which Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams play a young couple falling out of love, and "Biutiful," an account of a hustler ( Javier Bardem) handed more misfortune than Job.
Other recent difficult movies include "Never Let Me Go," an adaptation of a novel about human cloning and organ harvesting, and "Frankie and Alice," a portrait of a woman ( Halle Berry) fighting multiple personality disorder.
Such movies were never intended to compete with "Little Fockers" and "Tron: Legacy" for supremacy at the ticket counter. Instead, they are usually produced at relatively low budgets and seek to ride critical acclaim (and perhaps some awards attention) to a slim profit. But even modest financial ambitions are going unfulfilled.
Despite mostly favorable reviews, Fox Searchlight's "Never Let Me Go" grossed just $2.4 million in its domestic release this fall, less than the returns generated by the documentaries "Inside Job," "Exit Through the Gift Shop" and " Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work." Magnolia's "All Good Things," a fact-based drama about a man who many believe got away with murdering his wife, has performed well in video-on-demand but hasn't yet grossed $200,000 in three weeks of limited release.
Playing in five locations last weekend, "Rabbit Hole" grossed $54,000 — not a disastrous start, but a fraction of the early returns for films like "Black Swan" and "The Fighter," and even a lower per-screen average than the animated "Tangled," in wide release since late November.
It's part of a trend. Over the last few years, serious dramas have struggled to sell tickets. Even this year's best picture Oscar winner, "The Hurt Locker," sold only $16.4 million in tickets.
It's a material shift from just five years ago, when the hardly uplifting "Brokeback Mountain" grossed $83 million. In 2004, the depressing "Million Dollar Baby" grossed more than $100 million.
Some of the people behind the new batch of thorny films say the wider state of things may be limiting their appeal.
"There's a lot of strife in the world, and maybe people don't want strife in the cinema right now," said Mark Romanek, who directed the adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go" for Fox Searchlight. "But people who do give the film a chance are deeply moved by it."
Rather than dwell on how emotionally powerful their productions might be, the marketing materials for some of the movies play up their moments of hopefulness. Lionsgate, which is distributing "Rabbit Hole," is recycling a tactic it used when it released "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire" a year ago — the past is harrowing, but the future is brighter.
"'Rabbit Hole' has a life that goes beyond a few weeks," Kidman said of the film, which she produced as well as stars in. "These films find their life over a period of time, but they do get seen. I had that experience with 'The Hours.' That was difficult. That wasn't a film where you're like, 'OK great, I can't wait to go see this film about three women struggling with life and death!' That doesn't sound very good. But people went and saw it. Did they go see it in droves? No. But enough went and saw it to make it viable and enjoyed it and I still get enormous reactions to it."
Alejandro González Iñárritu, the director of "Biutiful," worries that American moviegoers have shut themselves off from confronting difficult emotional experiences.
"We are living in a society that is suffering from thanatophobia, the fear of death," Iñárritu said. "That's a sickness of Western society. In France they received the film incredibly well. For Latins, we don't reject that. It's important to learn how to live, but it's important to learn how to die, too, because it will happen no matter what.
"I found much more pain and darkness in a 20-minute TV newscast or in films where people are killed and nobody cares than in this film that is a human tragedy," the filmmaker added. "Not all beauty is beautiful. Beauty is not always found in the obvious places. Sometimes if you scratch the skin of pain, you can find beauty in a much more profound way."