Hollywood’s Trap

The Nutty Professor

a film by Tom Shadyac

Independence Day

a film by Roland Emmerich

Mission: Impossible

a film by Brian De Palma

The Rock

a film by Michael Bay

Twister

a film by Jan De Bont

The Cable Guy

a film by Ben Stiller

It would be edifying to learn what William Bennett, whose expertise as a moral diagnostician is currently on loan to the Dole campaign, has to say about The Nutty Professor, which has become one of the top moneymakers of the summer season and which is essentially a movie about—let us not mince words, my fellow Americans—farting. I am unclear where flatulence jokes stand in the list of virtues. Nothing human, of course, should disgust us; I feel confident that Mr. Bennett would agree on this point, one that is well established in the Western canon. On the other hand, do we want Americans to leave movie theaters under the impression that it’s “cool” to fart in the middle of, say, church? Surely we do not. What exactly is the message here?

I suspect, unfortunately, that The Nutty Professor is a phenomenon impervious to moral diagnosis. The movie, which is about a lovelorn 300-pound genetics professor who invents a formula for transforming himself into an impudent stud, is a warm-hearted, humane, completely predictable comedy whose idea of sublimity happens to be a family of overweight people sitting around the dinner table making rude noises. It stars Eddie Murphy, who plays, with the help of makeup and some amazing computer-generated morphing, the professor, the stud, and several other characters as well. As gross-out humor goes, it is consistently gross, pretty funny, and not in the least mean-spirited. Americans have spent, so far, over $100 million to see it. Does this tell us anything about anything?

A confusion usually arises when this question is asked about a movie, or about the state of movies in general. This is a confusion between the culture and the market. These are two completely different things, but they have gotten run together, in part thanks to people like Bennett, who want to illustrate an ethical point with what is essentially a commodity. It is, at a certain level, like trying to moralize about Tupperware.

For Hollywood doesn’t reflect our culture. It is merely part of our culture; and like pretty much everything else in our culture, it is in the never-ending business of seeking out the maximally profitable economic niche for its product. This happens to be, since it is so expensive to manufacture, a mass product, and it therefore requires a pretty big niche. But maximizing the profitability of a niche means precisely not wasting too much energy trying to please everybody.

Hollywood has been forced into the position of wasting some of its energy, trying to please everybody, though, because of the public relations problem created for it by people like Bennett, Bob Dole, and Bill Clinton, who, over the past few years, have found it expedient to lecture the industry on the subject of its moral hygiene. Journalists are happy to cover these speeches (which is why politicians are happy to deliver them), though most commentators think them silly—“Hollywood Babble On,” as Maureen Dowd headed one of her many …

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