Yes, Movie 43 is an infamous thing.
Rated a “legendary” 4% on Rotten Tomatoes, 18% on Metacritic, and widely considered one of the worst films ever made. (At least one critic has anointed it the “Citizen Kane of awful.”)
I myself steered clear of it for a long time. It has not even developed a cult fandom (yet), to my surprise. If it were not for a friend of mine who practically forced me to watch it, I would never have known it. And I am glad I did. Because I was frankly very surprised to find that most critics were way off the mark in their judgment about the film. Just bear with me here, and keep an open mind. Let go of that foundational belief for a moment that Movie 43 is bad because it must be bad because everybody says so. With its distinct brand of humor, it’s unfortunate that much of Movie 43’s insignificant positive reputation rests almost solely on audience remarks like the one below:
Let us hit the movie with some retrospection instead of preconceived notions, and see if we can salvage it from the wreckage of naive conservative criticism.
So where did they go wrong?
Most critics chiefly complained about the unpleasant aspects of the narrative. Unfortunately for them (and for us) (and for the movie) – they failed to grasp its essential themes. Movie 43 can be hard on the senses sometimes, I grant that. It can occlude one’s perception simply by being crass. Still, while not blaming the critics entirely, one shouldn’t let them off the hook so easily either. After all, it is the job of the critic to connect the undertones and overtones in a movie, things which might not seem so evident to others. Otherwise, what is the point of criticism? It’s called mudslinging. Something similar happened with Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate too. The criticism was so virulent it essentially led to the demise of the New Hollywood culture of filmmaking – one of the most innovative and long-lasting contributions of American cinema to the world.
Movie 43 may not be quite the era-defining masterpiece – not even close. But it is a genuinely decent, intelligent effort that warrants a reappraisal; some cutting of slack from the universal hate it received. That’s what makes it unreal. To think how badly the critics missed those signs. Why else would so many great performers agree to the project, if it was that despicable? That should have been the first pointer. Sure, there is the professional angle. But these actors probably green-lit this “worst movie” because they may have felt it really was worth a watch. Movie 43 is a painfully funny, often surreal takedown of some of the most popular genres in American cinema. Romantic comedy, superhero movie, teen drama, sports drama, spy thriller, and the ‘pet animal’ movie. By frequently casting these “happy” genres in an egregious light, the film digs into the manipulative realities behind them.
Take the freaky “high school drama” starring Naomi Watts and Liev Schreiber (real-life couple, no less). In a world where homeschooling and online classes are increasingly becoming the norm, balking out of real high school experience, how far can one stretch it in “good faith.” How far can you go to replicate the ‘real deal’? That is where the satire in this particular sketch lies. The scary thing is, in our hyper-digital, “anything goes” society, it attains a surreal, almost natural quality. It seems…normal. You are watching more in fascination than in fun. Not so much the case when the movie originally came out in 2013.
The ‘workplace drama’ parody sketch is a similar shocker.
Here the firm exhibits its aspirational “professionalism” by ignoring and masking the blatant misogyny they are selling as an MP3 player (called ‘iBabe’ and shaped like a woman), aimed at young teens. Whose earphone port is located at the MP3 player’s “genitalia.” Ironically, all the men on the team blatantly discuss the lucrative “product” but cringe at the word “vagina” when the only woman member on the team draws attention to the objectification. Here too the “normal” job meeting of professionals circling this highly abnormal subject lends it a surreal quality. But that such a mentality is not really out of place with the moral apathy that motivates and sustains such toxic capitalism – that’s the real shocker here. Even managing to co-opt female representation in the workplace in the process.
Even the horrendous, tongue-in-cheek ‘ad within the movie’ featuring a bleak futuristic society with kids stuck inside ATM machines operating them endlessly for sustenance – does not seem that much of a psychological impossibility in late-stage capitalism.
One of the reasons why the movie likely failed at the time was because of such frequently nihilistic themes.
It was the Bush-Obama era after all. The age of optimism, the age of denial.
But we do not enjoy that luxury any longer.
Consider the strange, cringe-worthy story involving Halle Berry. In a TikTok and Instagram-savvy world, with an explosion of filtered bodies (or bodies that are made to look like filters), one is more readily accepting of these themes. Kylie Jenner and Kim Kardashian could attest to that. But Movie 43 came of an era where Megan Fox was being vilified for being outspoken, Britney Spears was being harangued for just being herself. So the critics overwhelmingly failed to tap into these satirical them because it would mean looking deeper into the truth of their culture. A sinister sign that points at how America’s socio-political turns often define its school of film criticism. This is unfortunate because critics – of all people – should appreciate the language of cinema before the language of power.
Which brings us to another significant genre it lampoons: the superhero movie.
Even the superhero parody seems tailor-made for our times. It highlights the entitlement, ignorance, and sexism being sold in name of progressive change in that particular genre. As increasingly glossy and superficial superhero movies crop up from big studios, to tide over America’s – and by extension, our world’s – failure on every front. It also highlights the hypocrisy of gender discrimination while profiting out of simplistic, manipulative actioners like Black Widow or Wonder Woman, with no real concern for world politics. Or feminism.
This sentiment was very much behind the huge Scarlett Johansson vs. Disney lawsuit blow-up that came in news recently, over contract breach and hypocrisy among other things. Martin Scorsese’s pungent remarks about Marvel franchises being more like amusement parks than cinema must have hit a raw nerve there too. Which have only been proven more than accurate with the embracing and tacit sale of a “toxic positivity” culture as the pandemic, climate change, and economic recession rage on.
Movie 43 is a sucker punch in the face of vapid, complacent, Academy-worthy film criticism. And it’s not wrong in that. I mean, we did see Green Book win the best picture Oscar not that long ago. And full five years after Movie 43 came out, whose penultimate ‘sports’ sketch paints a far better picture of racism in America than Green Book‘s overlong, sentimental, “white savior” hogwash. At one stroke it skewers that favorite of White American genres: the sports movie.
Or consider the sketch with Kate Winslet and Hugh Jackman. The ball-sack on-the-face itself is not the punchline here. It is how everyone reacts so normally to it. Again, in a world that prioritizes superficial pleasantries and empty political correctness over real interaction, the surreal nature of this sketch rings truer than many ‘feel good’ movies from the time. It was a ‘feel good’ era, that failed to see through the cracks. To be fair, one does have to push themselves to watch beyond the initial shock of observing a scrotum and a pair of testicles dangling from Hugh Jackman’s throat. That is something that contemporary television figured out well: that such themes are better represented in adult animation than live-action because the animation cushions the grossness to a large extent.
Still, the satire in Movie 43 is virulent enough to warrant an effort from its audience.
As for the final sketch with the pet animation cat, what can I say, it’s an experience. With people increasingly opting for pets over partners, with memes about cat psychology exploding and still going strong on the internet, this one hits uncomfortably close to home. Furthermore, this news about a 3-D animation cat in Japan brings this weird, oddball sketch so much closer to reality.
To go back to the original question,
Is Movie 43 repulsive? Sure. Is it unpleasant and “tasteless”? Certainly, it can be. If we know what taste we are talking about. The sketch with Chris Pratt and Anna Farris, for instance. A romantic relationship founded on “coprophilia” – not what most people might call their morning or evening cup of tea. And nobody can judge you for fast-forwarding through it. However, it is still a representation. And a pretty honest and humane one at that – in whatever bonkers set-up it opts for. It normalizes the seemingly outrageous idea: that one can learn a thing or two about consensual roleplay from a story about coprophilia. Movie 43’s specialty is that you can still appreciate the nuance of a personally repugnant story, be fascinated by it. Its impact may not last very long, but while it lasts it does make you think, feel, and ‘cringe-joy’ the run.
Like I said before, an important reason why the project didn’t work out was probably that it used a live-action format. Which brought on a response from critics much like body fluids thrust in people’s faces would. In a world of Rick & Morty or Big Mouth, Movie 43’s genre-bending, genre-blending humanitarian insights would be much better appreciated. Evidently, it just came a few years too soon. At a time where even a year can be one year too many. But that also makes the belated appreciation more fun to devote. Almost all the sketches in this picture land expertly to connect well with the core satirical thread. Not an easy feat for an anthology film. If it succeeds even halfway in doing so, it has succeeded well. And in this case, Movie 43 certainly succeeds way past the acceptable mark. That’s all I have to say.
Click on the image below to watch 21 Jump Street starring Jonny Depp