Sunday, January 13, 2019

Mediocre is the new bad

I saw one of the most mediocre movies of the year last night.

Kevin Connolly's Gotti was, indeed, extremely mediocre.

But I watched it because it was supposed to be bad. Like, everyone and their mother said it was terrible. But it was really more mediocre than bad.

Then I realized, mediocre is the new bad.

Rarely do you get movies that are just screamingly awful anymore. I've got a couple on my list this year, but not many. I'm not sure if the people who provide the checks and balances at the studios and the distributors are getting better at their jobs, but the worst a movie can be these days seems to be one of the following: random, boring, poorly timed, tone deaf. I don't see many movies anymore where all the decisions are bad ones.

Case in point: Eli Roth's Death Wish. This tends to be thought of as one of the most reviled movies of the year. I enjoyed watching it. And that's because Roth does a lot of things right in it. The thing he does wrong is, well, make a movie about a vigilante that kind of celebrates gun ownership in the year 2018. That makes it poorly timed and tone deaf. But not screamingly awful, as its reviews suggest it is.

Then you've got Holmes & Watson. According to most of you, this movie is an abomination, an offense against nature. This movie used to be called "a dumb comedy" and it got a pass as uninspired but harmless. The worst that happened to it was that it was quickly forgotten, rather than being held up as a shining example of one of the year's true turds.

Gotti has a bit of the sense of being a film out of time, as it's just not all that fashionable in 2018 to make a movie about a mob boss. You can't watch Gotti without watching it through a 2018 lens, in which it feels like an anachronistic example of the problems of a white male, the ultimate symbol of the patriarchy. We don't want those movies right now, and Connolly should have realized that.

Its only real female character is played by star John Travolta's wife, Kelly Preston, and she has about the typical level of agency for a mafia wife, which is to say not much. She also plays a number of her scenes pretty big, though she's the only one that ever stands out in a negative way for her acting (I'm sorry to say).

You also can't watch Gotti without thinking of a dozen other movies it obviously wants to be, most notably Goodfellas. Kevin Connolly, erstwhile Entourage star, is obviously not up to that. His attempt is limp, but it's not a travesty. It's bland more than anything else.

And you've also got some life imitating art here. In Entourage, the characters were always making movies that were kind of epic disasters. (And this is not the only way Entourage is rearing its head in 2018 cinema, as a real-world Aquaman movie has finally come out -- and is a massive hit.) In the end, all those characters ended up seeming like douchebags as well, and you felt that the actors themselves were probably douchebags for continuing to play their characters in such douchebaggy ways. Connolly played one of the least douchy characters, but he's not immune to it. Gotti is a bit like the movie Medellin that Billy Walsh made in Entourage, as it's a poorly received epic about a larger-than-life criminal character from history, made by a possible douchebag with an inflated sense of his own abilities. Perhaps cementing the comparison is that the actor who played Billy Walsh, Rhys Coiro, also appears in Gotti. That and the fact that Travolta and Preston both appear give this a feeling of a film made by a small circle of intimate acquaintances doing favors for each other, which is never a good look for a film and which marks many of cinema's greatest flops.

Toward that end, I think in 2018 we would expect Gotti to get some kind of smaller, quieter release, rather than opening on however many hundreds or thousands of screens it did. It's the kind of film that would just be another anonymous nothing if it showed up quietly on a couple off-brand platforms, or even went straight to video, as a lot of Travolta movies do these days. (I'm not sure what distinction I'm making between straight to streaming and straight to video, but you can probably follow where I'm coming from.) By presenting itself theatrically, it's being faulted for having the cojones to think of itself as worthier of our time than it really.

Even with all these factors to consider, this is still a film that is mediocre. Maybe a bit south of mediocre, but not a lot south.

And yet I myself gave it only 1.5 stars, perhaps because I'm feeling the urge to grade on a curve at this point in the year. Out of 140 movies I'm ranking in 2018 as of this writing, only ten have received a star rating under two from me. Only ten.

How could that be? Am I going soft? Have I been more selective this year? Am I throwing a bone to a lot of lame movies? Am I failing to properly assess my own level of enjoyment of a movie?

Or has the critical community shifted to make better use of the whole range of star ratings?

I think this latter must be the case. I feel like there was a time when truly wretched movies more regularly escaped the vetting process at the studio. Like, movies with obvious gaffes somehow crossed the finish line without anyone noticing. I think I'm looking for those gaffes when I'm handing out star ratings of 1.5, one and half-star.

Since we're mostly not finding those gaffes these days, other critics have adjusted their definition of what makes a terrible movie, while I have not. And maybe it's that this is always worth being graded on a curve. The problem is, you can't truly sense the contours of that curve until you have already looked at a sufficiently large body of movies in a particular year, if you even want to use the calendar year as your segment of study. By then you have already given out all your star ratings, which in most cases are issued at the time of viewing and not retroactively.

I suspect I should make this adjustment. Gotti probably really is a one-star movie, but I didn't find any individual technical aspect of it to be laughable. I was especially appreciative of the makeup used to age John Travolta and add deep grooves and wrinkles to his face, for example. It's a reasonably competent movie, it's just a bit random, boring, tone deaf and poorly timed.

You know, mediocre.

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