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Language-based R rating is where 'Win Win' loses

May 02, 2011|Patrick Goldstein | Los Angeles Times

When director Tom McCarthy went on a 15-city tour this spring promoting his film "Win Win," parents at every stop asked him the same question: Why is your lovely little movie rated R? The Fox Searchlight picture, which played on nearly 400 screens last week, is a quirky comedy with a moral message quietly stashed inside its portrait of a suburban lawyer, played by Paul Giamatti, who moonlights as a high school wrestling coach and finds himself dealing with both a teen runaway and a legal shortcut gone wrong.

Critics loved the film, giving it a 95 percent fresh rating at Rotten, one of the year's top scores. As the Boston Globe's Ty Burr wrote: "The movie, in the end, is all about its title -- the way our culture hectors us to come out on top, the panic we feel when we can't keep up, the ethics we bend to stay in the game."

For parents like myself, "Win Win" is a godsend. In an era where most Hollywood films that appeal to kids are appallingly dumb or crammed with crass sexual innuendo and casual violence despite their PG-13 ratings, word gets around about the rare movie that offers a positive moral message but will still entertain adolescents. I know that in recounting the film to his pals, my 12-year-old will focus mainly on the hapless antics of Stemler, a dorky high school wrestler who finally gets his moment of glory. But I suspect that somehow he also absorbed a reminder that when dealing with temptation, you should look before you leap.

However, "Win Win" is rated R by the Motion Picture Assn. of America for its liberal sprinkling of F-bombs, since a film with more than one F-word gets an R whether it has a worthy message or is just out to make a lot of moolah. "The King's Speech," which won the best picture Oscar for its uplifting portrayal of a British monarch's struggle with a stutter, was also rated R for a brief outburst of profanity during a speech-therapy session.

"We don't ignore the rule just because it's a good movie," MPAA ratings board chief Joan Graves told me last week. "A lot of people will take their kids to see an R-rated movie if it's just because of the language, because they feel they can explain that to them. But if the language is there and we don't tell them, they have a fit."

And there's the rub. An R rating has commercial consequences, especially for a low-budget film like "Win Win" that would struggle to find an audience no matter what its rating in a marketplace dominated by studio behemoths. Having made $6.7 million in its first six weeks of release, "Win Win" (which had a budget of less than $10 million) is on its way to a modest profit. But Searchlight insiders say the studio is leaving a couple of million dollars on the table largely because the R rating restricts its youth-oriented advertising and requires anyone under 17 to be accompanied by a parent or guardian.

When I spoke to McCarthy about the MPAA ruling he seemed more incredulous than angry, especially when I told him Graves believes that parents in Middle America are more concerned about bad language than lots of violence.

"When we had screenings all around the country, I never saw any of that," he told me. "People didn't even realize the film had gotten an R for language. When I'd tell parents, they were indignant. They said, 'Kids hear that language on the playground every day. Why would they punish a movie that has so many positive messages about family relationships and the world we live in today?' "

McCarthy acknowledged having a "really frank conversation" with Searchlight brass before filming. "They asked if we'd consider changing the language, but they didn't force anything on me, even though I didn't have final cut. My attitude was that we'd lose a lot of authenticity if we didn't show the way kids actually talk at wrestling practice and in the locker room."

To me, the biggest drawback of the MPAA language rules is their lack of flexibility. When the board hands out ratings for violence, they are based on a general consensus that it's extreme enough to merit an R. They wouldn't dream of installing a purely numerical rating, where a film with 73 bloody corpses gets a PG-13 but adding a 74th corpse would trigger an R.

But that's exactly what the board does with language. A PG-13 film can have one F-bomb, but two merits an R. And not all profanity is equal in the eyes of the MPAA. A film can feature unfettered use of a barnyard epithet that rhymes with "fit" without triggering an R. When I asked Graves why one word is considered filthier than the other, she said: "In the perception of most parents, the F-word is worse, maybe because it's sexually derived. I mean, if your son dropped a carton of orange juice and said (the F-word) instead of (a barnyard epithet), wouldn't you be more upset?"

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