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Critic's Notebook: Is it time to wash out Hollywood's mouth?

A backlash is growing against filmmakers' increasing reliance on foul language. It's OK to provoke, shock, titillate — if appropriate. Otherwise, watch the salty talk.

May 13, 2012|By Betsy Sharkey, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Adam Scott and Jennifer Westfeldt star as friends who decide to have a child but not marry in "Friends with Kids."
Adam Scott and Jennifer Westfeldt star as friends who decide to have a child… (Jojo Whilden, Roadside…)

At first, the email rants from readers expressing their distress about Hollywood's increasing reliance on foul language were a mere trickle. Like the way one couple lost faith in one of their favorite actors, Paul Rudd, mortified by his graphic pep talk to his private part in"Wanderlust."

Before those complaints could be chalked up to a prudish few, they grew into a steady stream of frustration, such as the distinct distaste for the dialogue in writer-director-actress Jennifer Westfeldt's indie comedy"Friends With Kids." As one put it: "When did 'adult' start to mean infantile?" and she wasn't talking about the babies.

Now, we head into summer, the prime time for big, bruising action flicks and lots of racy comic outrage and a grand opportunity for filmmakers to cross boundaries of taste on the language front. I'm bracing for what could well become a raging torrent of moviegoer disgust and distress, because despite what anyone claims about the modern acceptance of and appetite for language of the roughest, rawest, most graphic sort, the truth is that a huge contingent of the paying crowd objects to it still.

No one seems to know how to talk about it either, including the Motion Picture Assn. of America, which weighs in on nearly every movie released. The MPAA's ratings assessments provide little illumination on the subject — language, some language, brief language, pervasive language and language throughout is pretty much all the MPAA says about a film — compared to its colorful descriptions of violence and sex.

Certainly for the purposes of this piece, in this paper, most of the words — whether used as noun, adjective or verb — are off limits to me. And when language does come up for public debate, it's nearly always the wrong battle. Take the MPAA's recent fight with the Weinstein Co. over"Bully,"a powerful documentary about schoolyard terrors made provocative by the real way that real kids use language against one another. "Bully" didn't deserve its initial "R" rating (later modified to PG-13 after cuts were made), but that didn't mean that there wasn't a case to be made against the increasing crudeness of language in films.

Some argue that the uptick in trashy talk is nothing more than a reflection of an increasingly coarse pop culture, with virtually every other entertainment medium fighting its own naughty-versus-nice battles. Others trace it to the surprise success of "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" in 2005, an R-rated comedy that brought in a mainstream audience as well money, with studios looking to repeat, pressing filmmakers to "dirty it up" when and where they can. Even more point fingers at the filmmakers themselves, adolescent-minded ones allowed to run amok. Whoever is at fault or responsible, the result is the same — the license being taken with language has stopped being shocking, truthful, titillating or funny.

When filmmakers are contemplating what words to include or exclude in a scene, the question should always boil down to context. Does it make the scene sharper, wittier, smarter — or is it nothing more than a throwaway line looking for a laugh? The cleverest writers know how to find that sweet spot where reality and rough words naturally intersect. David Mamet's raw real-estate drama "Glengarry Glen Ross" and Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor's spicy wine-country tour "Sideways" are two R-rated home runs that come to mind.

Sometimes, of course, throwaway is fine — anyone walking into"The Hangover"was not only prepared for but also expecting it to be R-rated and mindlessly brash from beginning to end. Same for"Bridesmaids,"which promised to "go there" from its first ad. And that's OK, because sometimes that may be exactly what you're in the mood for. I say that as a big "Bridesmaids" and "Hangover" (1, not 2) fan.

Below-the-belt body parts that used to go unmentioned are now front and center comic fodder. Testicles and vaginas have become chronic comic targets for graphic verbal abuse, with a specificity that is more often crude than clever. Masturbation — and every slang street description of it from the mechanics to the payoff — has become the new sure thing, the "it" of R.

Two recent films suggest we've perhaps reached a tipping point in moviegoers' patience. The unnecessary manhandling of words in "The Five-Year Engagement,"I would argue, played a major role in its fast fizzle last month. The film had an appealing ensemble of stars headed by Jason Segel and Emily Blunt. The basic idea was interesting — two careers colliding to make a mess of wedding plans. But the language too often went foul, from the excessive descriptions of the nether regions of Segel's sous chef to his sophisticated mom's carpet-bombing a family heart-to-heart with expletives.

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