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The Year in Failure

Battleship, Cruel Summer, Liz & Dick, and pondering new ways to measure incompetence

This we can say for sure: The least-successful widely released film of 2012 was something called The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure, in which lumbering costumed doll-people hunt for magical balloons with the help of beloved children’s entertainers Jaime Pressley, Cary Elwes, and Christopher Lloyd and a talking vacuum cleaner named J. Edgar. The Oogieloves cost $20 million to make, and has grossed a little over $1 million to date. During its three-day opening weekend, it had a per-screen average of $206, which works out to about nine paid admissions per screen per day.

These numbers do not need to be put in perspective. You have probably held $206 in cash in your hand at some point in your life, maybe after a moderately successful yard sale; you know how many people nine people is. This movie did very, very badly — and yet, one week after what turned out to be not just the worst opening weekend of 2012 but also the worst opening weekend of all time, there, in the pages of USA Today, was Kenn Viselman, the producer and marketing strategist who is for all intents and purposes the auteur of the Oogieloves franchise, reading straight from a silver-linings playbook, promising sequels and maybe a TV show, and suggesting that the movie’s history-makingly terrible box-office performance “could pay off in the long run,” because one of the film’s goals “was to make people aware of Oogieloves. That happened.”

This is why it’s hard to talk about failure in a pop-cultural context in 2012. Any way you slice it — unless, like Viselman, you’re slicing it with a jeweler’s loupe and a laser beam — those opening-weekend numbers seem like a referendum on the public’s interest in movies featuring Cary Elwes doing stuff like this. And yet there is always hope. There is the foreign market. There are DVD and Blu-ray and VOD. There are frazzled parents searching uncritically for something colorful and streamable that will buy them 88 minutes of relative peace. There are stoned film students wondering how bad it could be.

Besides, what does “box office” really mean anymore? What does it measure, aside from people’s willingness to partake of a version of the movie-watching experience that we’re constantly being told is increasingly irrelevant, dying, doomed, or dead? We know that we don’t consume entertainment the way we used to, and that the old metrics don’t tell the whole story, and yet we like to forget that when it’s convenient, because we like the narrative in which terrible movies are punished with terrible opening weekends. We take pride in not caring if our favorite bands sell records (no matter how much it imperils Grizzly Bear’s and Cat Power’s respective grips on middle-class existence). But in September, when erroneous reports suggested that advanced Internet irritator Kreayshawn’s new album had bricked like no album ever in the history of time, the Internet was quick to celebrate this as some kind of referendum on Kreayshawn’s right to continue drawing breath and rapping.

When ousted Community creator Dan Harmon alludes, in a blog post regarding his removal from the showrunner’s chair, to network bullies “bloodying [his] nose with old world numbers” — his show garnered its lowest ratings ever this season, as did the similarly niche-cherished 30 Rock — we nod knowingly at our monitors. But we’re totally fine with old-world numbers when they spare us another season of Are You There, Chelsea? or confirm that it was a dumb idea to spend millions of dollars making movies like Dark Shadows or Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter or fucking Battleship.

Ah, Battleship — that was a thing that happened, and I will admit once again that I enjoyed letting it happen to me. (The moment when a radar-blind U.S. destroyer has to fire its missiles using lettered and numbered coordinates on a grid not unlike the board of a certain perennially popular Milton Bradley game was so stupid I wanted to stand up and cheer.) If nothing else, Battleship was the least-worst Taylor Kitsch movie of 2012, because Kitsch also starred in March’s John Carter, as a Civil War vet and treasure hunter who gets caught up in a war between a bunch of ridiculously named city-states (Zodanga!) after being transported to Mars. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the original John Carter tales so long ago that they were a crucial boyhood influence on Ray Bradbury, who died this year at 91; also, there hasn’t been movie money on Mars since the original Total Recall, which may be why this year’s Colin Farrell remake left out the Red Planet entirely.

And yet director Andrew Stanton and Disney still spent a rumored $350 million on computer-generated Tharks and Tharns and a marketing campaign that mysteriously downplayed the seemingly unbeatable “Shirtless Tim Riggins Goes to Space” angle. One box-office pundit suggested that the film would have had to make $600 million worldwide to turn a profit; it made $282,778,100. We can argue about whether it failed because it was turgid and musty and in thrall to boys’ adventure stories that were old when George Lucas was young, or because Taylor Kitsch isn’t the movie star people thought he might be, or because it had to make Star Wars money to succeed — but at least we could all see that it failed.

That wasn’t true of a lot of things this year. We still need to look to those old-world numbers — first-week sales, opening-weekend attendance, overnight Nielsens — to ratify success and failure because most of the time we’re a fragmented nation when it comes to determining what worked and what didn’t by any other yardstick. We will probably be arguing until spring about whether the Season 2 finale of Homeland — which ended with a bunch of regulars dead and Sergeant Brody hitting the road like Richard Kimble or David Banner — was an example of a TV show dynamiting its status quo brilliantly or suicidally. People who found Cruel Summer to be a gloriously overdone Sistine Chapel portrait of Kanye West reaching down from a cloud to touch Pusha T’s finger will never see eye to eye with those who heard it as Mr. West’s first only-OK record, a glorified mixtape/infomercial dedicated to advancing the highly suspect thesis that Big Sean is somehow Jay-Z’s peer. (Props to Yeezy for having the balls to Auto-Tune R. Kelly, an iconoclastic choice on par with gold-plating a diamond.) We will probably only come to a consensus about Prometheus and Cloud Atlas — IMAX tributes to shock and awe, respectively, both commercial disappointments — by forgetting them.

And we will never be able to have a rational conversation about The Dark Knight Rises or The Avengers — but since I didn’t get enough chances to use the block button on Twitter this year, I’m going to go ahead and suggest that both those movies, which made absurd amounts of money, still merit consideration in an essay about the year in failure. Dark Knight‘s abundant flaws (garbled politics, garbled Tom Hardy, garbled character motivations, bet-hedging call-me-maybe non-ending ending) didn’t stop its partisans from issuing comment-thread death threats to movie critics whose opinions threatened its Rotten Tomatoes average; the spectacle of nerds cyberbullying other nerds in defense of big-budget Hollywood product would have been funny if it hadn’t been so sad.

And now that some time has passed, can we admit that The Avengers was merely the year’s most satisfactory movie, that it succeeded in justifying the existence of the Marvel-verse films that preceded it more than it justified its own, and that in general praising a work of art for sticking the landing is kind of like praising a horse for making it across the finish line without breaking a leg? Yeah, I thought not. (No shots at Joss Whedon, but his name appeared on only one truly in-and-of-itself great movie this year, and it was the one in which a merman eats Bradley Whitford.)

Sometimes it seems as if we’re not all watching the same TV shows and seeing the same movies and listening to the same records, even when we are. We live in the ruins of what used to be a monoculture and we are never, ever getting back together. So we need things to fail abjectly, because it brings us together. The most amazing communal experience I had with a work of art this year was probably the first time I saw The Master — opening night, packed house, stunned silence from first shot to last, a whole room holding its breath so as not to break the spell. But the second-most amazing communal experience I had with a work of art in 2012 involved the Lifetime docudrama Liz & Dick. My understanding is that Liz & Dick starred Lindsay Lohan and someone who played a character named “Cooter” on True Blood as Richard Burton and (are you serious right now, IMDb?) Creed from The Office as Darryl Zanuck, and kind of resembled a school play Max Fischer would have taken his name off of; I didn’t actually watch it. But I watched Twitter watch it. I read along as Twitter pecked it to death, and it was magical, like a slow-motion casino demolition with tipsy color commentary by an Algonquin Round Table as big as the world. The movie itself was a ratings disappointment — it did about half what the Steel Magnolias reboot did for the network a few months earlier — but that doesn’t matter. Did any other movie made for TV this year fill this many people with this much wonder and glee? Did any other movie?

Filed Under: Battleship, Kanye West, Movies, Music

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Alex Pappademas is a staff writer for Grantland.

Archive @ PAPPADEMAS