The Motion Picture Association of America does a few other things too, but its most visible impact on movie-going is its ratings system. G, PG, PG-13, R, or NC-17, you gotta have a rating for your movie if you want most theater chains to show it, and the MPAA's secretive clan of breast-counters and violence-ignorers decides which label its gets.
An overwhelming majority of films get the rating they deserve -- or, at the very least, a rating that's consistent with how the MPAA has rated other films with similar content. But some MPAA decisions are baffling, illogical, or just plain outrageous. Here are the ones that perplexed us the most this year.
The Worst MPAA Ratings of 2008
1. The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian (rated PG for "epic battle action and violence"). The MPAA says, "The ratings are intended to provide parents with advance information so they can decide for themselves which films are appropriate for viewing by their own children." It's all about parents looking out for their kids. So how in the name of C.S. Lewis did this film -- rife with stabbing, throat-slitting, decapitating, and large-scale slaughter, much of it perpetrated by teenage characters -- get a PG? Does the fact that most of the violence is bloodless (and therefore not realistic) somehow make it family-friendly? Had there been even one sexual reference, it would have gotten a PG-13. Thank goodness Disney only packed the film with killing instead!
2. Son of Rambow (rated PG-13 for "some violence and reckless behavior"). Meanwhile, this British charmer about two young boys filming their own homemade Rambo movie was given the more restrictive PG-13. The violence is minimal and mostly just silly; it's that "reckless behavior" that made the MPAA nervous. Kids tend to imitate movies, especially movies about other kids, so you can see why some parents might be hesitant to let impressionable youngsters see this one. But then again, wouldn't "parental guidance" (i.e., PG) be enough? If parents monitor their children's viewing, pointing out that some of the funny things in the movie would be dangerous in real life, wouldn't that be sufficient?
3. The Fall (rated R for "some violent images"). If this film existed in a vacuum, its R rating might be reasonable. Its violence is not awfully graphic, but there's often a fine line between what's too much and what's OK, and I can understand erring on the side of caution. But the film does not exist in a vacuum. It exists in a world where The Dark Knight, whose violence is much more abundant and at least as disturbing as The Fall's, got a PG-13, and where the aforementioned Prince Caspian, which is wall-to-wall violence, got a PG. (The absurdity of that PG rating will haunt me to my dying day. I will probably mention it about 10 more times in this article alone.) I cannot see how The Fall deserved a harsher rating than those films.
4. Slumdog Millionaire (rated R for "some violence, disturbing images and language"). Again, let us consider the vacuum. If the MPAA is not reasonably consistent in its application of the ratings, then the whole system is useless. There are some disturbing ideas in this film, including suggestions of rape, murder, and maiming, but none of them are shown graphically on the screen. That's an important distinction. Directors often intentionally stage a shot a certain way so as to avoid visually depicting something gruesome, and they often do it specifically to avoid an R rating. Look at Christopher Nolan's work in The Dark Knight: We don't actually see the pencil go into the guy's eye; we don't actually see the Joker slice open the other guy's mouth; we don't actually see the Asian dude burned alive on top of the pile of money. All those things (and many more) are implied, but not shown. The same holds true for Slumdog Millionaire, yet it got a more restrictive rating.
5. Frost/Nixon (rated R for "some language"). The "some language" the MPAA refers to comprises four uses of the F-word, two of them in the popular "motherf*****" construction. Now, you may not know this, but the MPAA has an actual rule about this. You can use the F-word once or twice (or occasionally even three times) and still get a PG-13, but only if the word is used merely as an expletive -- "Get the eff out of here," "You effing idiot," etc. If the word is used in its literal, sexual verb sense, you get an R rating, even if it's only used once. There are occasional exceptions -- Ron Burgundy famously said "Go eff yourself, San Diego" in the PG-13 Anchorman -- but it's pretty consistent. That's why Frost/Nixon, with its two mothereffers and two other F-bombs, got an R, probably automatically: Four F-words is pushing it for a PG-13, and especially when two of them are literal. So the MPAA is being consistent here, but let's take a step back. The whole system is meant to be a tool for parents, right? Well, it seems to me that if a teenager is mature enough to even want to see Frost/Nixon, he's probably mature enough to handle a few expletives. He shouldn't need to be escorted to the theater by a parent or guardian -- and what's the parent or guardian supposed to do, anyway? Cover his ears when the naughty words come? This is a case where the MPAA should have exercised some flexibility and common sense.
6. Frozen River (rated R for "some language"). See previous comments on Frost/Nixon. This time there are only two F-words, which is exceedingly common for a PG-13 film -- ah, but one of them is a verb, so the R rating is pretty much automatic. And it's also pretty much ridiculous in this case, because once again, if a teenager is even interested in a wintry independent drama about a struggling single mom, he should be allowed to see it unchaperoned. I would go so far as to say that a young person's interest in thoughtful dramas should be encouraged, not discouraged.
7. The Love Guru (rated PG-13 for "crude and sexual content throughout, language, some comic violence and drug references"). The MPAA even admits up front that this Mike Myers comedy has crude and sexual content throughout, yet still gives it a PG-13 rating. Why? Well, there are no F-words! And no actual nudity! Only a ton of other swearing, endless double entendre (and single entendre), abundant references to genitalia, and a climactic scene involving two elephants having sex on an ice rink. And at the center is a performer who's popular with kids (he hosted the MTV Movie Awards right before the film opened) and whose previous raunchy, PG-13-rated comedies became much-quoted and much-emulated among the younger set. Yes, by all means, this is surely the kind of movie that parents would want their children to see, not something complex and intelligent like Frozen River or imaginative and engaging like The Fall.