As much of a relief as it is to know that Jim Carrey is still bankable enough somewhere that he can continue receiving big paydays and making creepy video love letters to 22-year-old starlets, you still have to wonder: why are foreign audiences flocking to a homegrown Hollywood movie that domestic audiences rejected?
And that's not the only example. Lots of recent movies that underestimated the lowest-common-denominator taste of the American public have been huge hits overseas. Even 3D movies, which U.S. viewers seem to be rejecting as not worth the extra price, do well throughout the rest of the world.
American audiences used to be considered philistines, while moviegoers in Europe, Japan and elsewhere used to be considered sophisticates. How did we come to switch places? How is it possible that we have better taste in movies than foreign audiences do?
Fifty years ago, it was conventional wisdom that audiences abroad had better taste in films than we did. They had movie cultures that spawned Fellini and Kurosawa and Bergman, who made flicks for thoughtful adults and scholars, while Hollywood made shoot-em-up Western matinees for kids and labored under a production code that prohibited filmmakers from addressing serious adult topics with frank language and visuals. Some of Hollywood's best movies were ignored or forgotten at home but were rescued from neglect and obscurity by French movie critics who insisted that the disreputable crime dramas they'd rediscovered were gems, inventing a new genre name to describe them (film noir) and elevating their journeyman directors to auteur status.
By the 1980s, however, the great international art-filmmakers of Fellini's generation were largely retired. The Hollywood blockbuster, as sold by such franchises as 'Star Wars' and such iconic stars as Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise, began to take over the world, even while a homegrown independent film movement, led by the likes of Jim Jarmusch, Spike Lee, Joel and Ethan Coen and Quentin Tarantino arose to replace the foreign art film. The turning point may have come 20 years ago, when Luc Besson released 'La Femme Nikita' and proved that the French could make big, dumb, violent action movies as well as Hollywood could. Suddenly, American filmmakers were the darlings of the Cannes Film Festival, while France's own film industry was happily turning out Hollywood-style junk food. It's as if we got them hooked on Big Macs, and now they've lost the taste for filet mignon, as well as the recipe.
In recent years, Hollywood executives have recognized the importance of the foreign market, to the extent that foreign taste seems to determine what movies are made. Big, loud action movies -- especially ones that don't require much in the way of dialogue translation -- are the order of the day. Vapid, star-driven thrillers, like 'The Tourist' and 'Knight & Day' (especially if they feature attractive stars and postcard-pretty locations) do very well abroad, even while they flop here. ('Knight' star Cruise remains as popular as ever in the rest of the world.) Clever comedies, especially those dependent on wordplay or understanding of American cultural quirks, don't do as well. (Slapstick and fart jokes, however, as in 'Mr. Popper's Penguins,' are just fine.) And adult dramas are the toughest sell of all.
Not that domestic audiences don't still love big, dumb, blockbusters, too. We do, but not as much as the rest of the world does. 'Transformers: Dark of the Moon' made a tremendous amount of money in America, $349.5 million so far, but it's made $757 million everywhere else. 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' was poorly reviewed here and earned $240.5 million (the smallest domestic take of all four 'Pirates' movies), but it earned $780 million abroad. 'Fast Five,' with its melting-pot cast, earned $209.8 million here and twice as much internationally.
In recent weeks, Americans have made a $96.8 million hit out of 'The Help,' a film that -- whether or not you think it's successful in its treatment of the thorny topic of race relations -- represents a serious attempt to address a painful moment in our own history. The grown-up comedy 'Crazy, Stupid, Love' remains a top 10 hit after more than a month in theaters, with $69.7 million in domestic sales (but just $10.5 million earned overseas). 'Midnight in Paris,' which has stayed in theaters all summer, is not only the highest-grossing domestic hit of Woody Allen's career ($51.6 million and counting), but also the first in recent memory that's done better in America than in Europe. Meanwhile, domestic audiences have rejected such standard-issue summer fare as 'Conan the Barbarian,' 'Fright Night' and 'Final Destination 5,' while offering only a lukewarm welcome to 'Cowboys & Aliens,' 'Green Lantern,' and Besson's 'Colombiana.'
One reason we have less fondness for mediocre big-budget Hollywood movies than moviegoers overseas do may be due to economics. As a recent Variety report notes, 3D movies (even the poorly retro-converted ones that were filmed in 2D) are doing well abroad, while flailing here. But a lot of that has to do with price structure. Other countries have incentives to make 3D movies more affordable, such as 3D-glasses purchases instead of rentals, or cheaper tickets for shorter movies. Here, however, audiences have decided that few movies are worth the hefty 3D surcharge and have chosen to skip 3D screenings when 2D screenings are available.
Another reason may be creative marketing. The upcoming 'What's Your Number' looks like a typically formulaic romantic comedy that will be lucky to gross $40-$60 million here, but a look at the way the French are selling it -- they've retitled it '[S]ex List' -- suggests that it'll be a big hit in Europe. Hard to believe the French are outdoing Hollywood in pandering and crassness, but there you have it.
Which raises a scary thought. After all, the French were right about film noir. They were right about Jerry Lewis. What if they're right about current Hollywood fare? In 50 years, will we look back and realize that 'Mr. Popper's Penguins,''Transformers: Dark of the Moon,' and 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' were actually unsung masterpieces of cinema?
Follow Gary Susman on Twitter @garysusman.