The Age of Decadence is Over

By  · Published on April 11th, 2011

This editorial features spoilers for Arthur, so go watch it first or consider yourself warned.

Leave it to Drew McWeeny to make me think way deeper about Arthur than I ever really wanted to while sober. His piece on the drunken, bumbling movie called into question the reason why none of the advertising featured Arthur with a drink in hand, and, more interestingly, why the character has to learn a lesson directly related to his alcoholic behavior.

The question is whether excess is still funny. The answer is yes, but it can’t be all funny, and that’s a shame.

There was once a time when a character could be over the top without the audience having the spoon of morality shoved down their throats. If there are any teenagers out there, I can assure you that metaphorical spoon was never used for cooking symbolic crack cocaine. Only allegorical soup. Promise.

The point is that a mainstream film just can’t feature a character knee deep in vice anymore without showing the negatives. McWeeny is absolutely correct, and what it’s led to is a new brand of self-censorship that would make Will Hays proud.

Where the Wild Drunks Are

As for the film itself, Arthur features a fun-loving, life-affirming adult boy who almost never goes without a drink in hand. His drunken state is a celebration of the best this world has to offer, and he couples it with the trapping of extreme wealth. If we were all morons, the lesson might be that drinking alcohol constantly makes you happy. Why? Because it does. It can also make you sad, but this is a fictional world where a billionaire takes the Batmobile out for a spin and buys clothing worn by Abraham Lincoln. This isn’t reality, and it shouldn’t have to preach reality’s shortcomings, especially after so much consequence-less fun.

Arthur’s comeuppance is directly tied to his drinking (but so is his falling in love), but it feels like the toe tag on a dead clown, shoehorned in by producing decree rather than creative necessity.

In context, it works well. The first AA scene gives an honest gut check by way of Helen Mirren nailing Arthur down to the floorboards with who he actually is – or at least the hidden results of his Johnny Walker may care attitude. It’s a great moment, and it stands as the polar opposite of the gag-worthy scene where Arthur holds up his 6 month sober coin and beams about it being the most important thing of alllllllllll. Being drunk got him, for better and worse, to where he is at the end, but he’s got to shed it in order to get his life together. For some reason.

The context may work, but the AA subplot destroys the structure of the movie. If the film were re-edited to take all of the “My name is Arthur” nonsense out, it would lose one genuine moment with Mirren, and the final act would look more like a final act should. It would also strike out the ultimate lesson that drinking anything at all ever is bad.

Searching For Movie Drunks in the 21st Century

As an exercise prompted by McWeeny’s editorial, I took a look back at 2010 to find the drunkest, most extravagant characters to see how they’re treated. It wasn’t pretty.

Last year wasn’t a great year for drunks. There aren’t any mainstream examples of alcoholics having a blast and riding off into the sunset with a smile on their sodded faces.

It’s really a matter of going back to 2009 and The Hangover to see some true debauchery. The catch here is that this was an R-rated comedy that blew up bigger than anyone involved could have guessed. Maybe because of the dearth of fun drunknness, everyone soaked it up like a sponge with the last of the tequila in it. Of course, the perfect irony here is that the movie is nothing but consequences. They just happened to be shown in a funny, safety net version of reality that makes you want to hang out with those guys and steal Mike Tyson’s tiger (which I’m definitely not planning to do next Thursday around midnight). There are a ton of negative consequences to drinking here, but they’re all funny, and things worked out for the best, so who cares?

The lesson of that film asks: do you want to go on a crazy adventure that sparks up your dull life with a bunch of fun people? Then get fuzz-knuckled in Vegas and play fill-in-the-blanks the next day! Drinking is fun! Hooray!

The Real Drinking Problem

We’ve entered an era where the public is all too aware of social problems, and scapegoats are always hunted for sport. The 80s ushered in the fear-mongering of drugs and sex to coincide with extravagance – and it’s no shock that there are more than a few examples of decadence in that decade. Hell, it’s the era of lighthearted teen sex flicks that feature Scott Baio growing pot, lifting girls’ skirts up with his mind, and full frontal nudity that played in the same fun-for-the-whole-family tone that a kid’s movie does today.

We arrive here in 2011 with everyone being able to site statistics about everything from drunk driving to gang activity, and the spectre of frivolous claims hangs over our heads. Judas Priest being absurdly sued for allegedly causing suicide was one thing. That pattern has continued to today with bands like My Chemical Romance and Blood Retch (you just don’t hear about it as much), with the added bonus of the misplaced Marilyn Manson/Columbine fault, and video game violence being hoisted on a monthly basis.

The difference with the movie industry is that it has to hit all four quadrants from time to time. A movie like Arthur or Iron Man 2 or Get Him to the Greek can’t wantonly show decadence without showing the downside of it (beyond hilarious hangovers) because someone, somewhere will get mad, and the PTA will rally. McWeeny is exactly right when he says that the studios believe that we, as a broad group of moviegoers, have lost the line between displaying and promoting. Maybe we have.

This has led directly to:

The Modern Day, Totally Voluntary Hays Code

It’s really a thing of beauty. One of the primary tenets of the Hays Code was that people who did bad things had to have bad things happen to them. Bad things back in the early-to-mid 1900s included loose sex and not washing your hands, but the point was that a comeuppance had to exist. You had to spoon-feed the audience a moral lesson with every serving. That’s why Bette Davis got to turn herself into a living corpse for Of Human Bondage – to show that being a cruel, manipulative, prostitute would lead to lonely death by VD.

With the Hays Code gone, studios have taken it upon themselves to self-police with a modern, self-inflicted Hays Code. Let’s call it the Phase Code (as in, I hope this is just a phase).

The PG-13 rating for Arthur says it all. You can’t have teenagers watching 2 hours of a guy having the time of his life completely sauced. I mean, you can, because it would be hilarious and would have arguably far, far, far less impact than the child’s relationship with parents and peers. But you can’t, because showing that person having a great time with no ill consequences would apparently teach teenagers that drinking is fun, especially when done to excess. And, as we all know, this is a lesson they can’t be taught until college, when they wake up with a penis drawn on their face.

All of this has been born out of the Hays Code, but it’s due now in part to the MPAA ratings board. Studios can’t fathom getting an R-rating for some of their films, because it would kill the potential for giant numbers. However, it’s unclear whether the MPAA would actually give an R-rating simply because a drunken character never learns a lesson about being drunk. Without knowing the inner-workings of the ratings process for a movie like Arthur, it’s impossible to know whether that would take place or not, but if it would, then that’s truly troubling. If that’s the case, it becomes a situation where the MPAA starts passively dictating story content (as opposed to simply dictating how things are displayed or how many Fucks are included). If the MPAA is demanding that “sinful” characters have to have a comeuppance, we really are slapping back to the days of the Hays Code.

However, there’s no direct evidence of that. The better bet is that it’s the studios pre-emptively cleaning their content and neutering themselves. Frankly, I don’t know which one is sadder.

But on the bright side, having Arthur sober up at the end of the film also seems like a fail safe should anyone think it a bright idea to remake Arthur 2: On the Rocks.

What do you think?

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.