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Grey Gardens Blurs Lines Between Cable Movies and First-Run

by Anne Thompson
April 20, 2009 7:21 AM
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These days, many of the people who aren't interested in what's playing at the multiplex are checking out the new movie opening on HBO instead. Hollywood only has itself to blame. Ignore the adult audience and they'll get out of the moviegoing habit, rent DVDs and subscribe to HBO. This weekend many folks watched the opening of Grey Gardens, starring movie stars Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore (both strong Emmy contenders for Big and Little Edie) instead of going out to see new movie State of Play (which earned a barely respectable 63% on Metacritic to Grey Garden's 77). There was a time when Grey Gardens would have been a theatrical release. Now it's an HBO film--reviewed by the Two Bens on At the Movies:

State of Play, which opened soft to about $14 million, and the upcoming The Soloist, which is unlikely to drop 'em dead at the b.o. next week either, share the same weakness. (Here's Variety's Soloist review.) They're 'tweeners. You can see the problem. Working Title's Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner want to make studio-level smart-audience movies with decent budgets and movie stars. With State of Play, they started out with Brad Pitt and a high-quality supporting cast and wound up with no Pitt on the eve of the Writers Strike, hastily replaced by Russell Crowe. He's wonderful as a stocky long-haired Saab-driving muckraker of the old school, pitted against his old college chum, an ambitious Congressman (Ben Affleck), his editor (Helen Mirren), contending with the forces fighting against the survival of newspapers, and a young blogger (Rachel McAdams).

For its part, The Soloist boasts Robert Downey, Jr. and Jamie Foxx—-who are not guaranteed marquee draws. (Nobody is, anymore.) Both movies remind us of why we need to pay for good journalism. State of Play works as a Washington corporate intrigue thriller, while The Soloist was designed as a high-minded topical headline drama, its Oscar hopes dashed by Paramount when it was pushed back to spring release. But this movie is creakier, less steady on its feet, through no fault of the actors. It might have worked better on HBO, where it could have had the courage of its convictions. It's simultaneously too dark and too light. It's overwrought to such a degree that even though it's based on a true story, the homeless man is too disturbing, and the drama, too uplifting.

Finally, both films are based on old models that just don’t work anymore. But it’s not the adult drama that should be blamed here. It’s studio execs willing to lavish spending on movies--State of Play's $60 million budget was partly funded by Relativity Media--that are unlikely to recoup.

Instead of trying to inflate these movies by pumping them up with mainstream commerciality, the studios should hand them over to indie subsidiaries able to produce them on a more modest scale. At which point, Crowe and Affleck and Downey and Foxx would get paid a lot less. And their movies might make their money back.

Here's the Grey Gardens trailer:

originally posted on Variety.com

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More: Box Office, Genres, TV, Spring, Drama

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