Why 'Win Win' is in a lose-lose situation with the MPAA's language police
When director Tom McCarthy went on a 15-city tour this spring promoting his film “Win Win,” parents at every stop asked him the same question: Why is your lovely little movie rated R? The Fox Searchlight picture, playing on nearly 400 screens this week, is a quirky comedy with a moral message quietly stashed inside its portrait of a suburban lawyer, played by Paul Giamatti, who moonlights as a high school wrestling coach and finds himself dealing with both a teen runaway and a legal shortcut gone wrong.
Critics have loved the film, giving it a 95 fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes, one of the year's highest scores. As the Boston Globe's Ty Burr wrote: “The movie, in the end, is all about its title — the way our culture hectors us to come out on top, the panic we feel when we can’t keep up, the ethics we bend to stay in the game.”
For parents like myself, “Win Win” is a godsend. In an era where most Hollywood films that appeal to kids are appallingly dumb or crammed with crass sexual innuendo and casual violence, despite their PG-13 ratings, word gets around fast about the rare movie that actually offers a positive moral message but will still entertain adolescents. I know that in recounting the film to his pals, my 12-year-old will focus mainly on the hapless antics of Stemler, a dorky high school wrestler who finally gets his moment of glory. But I suspect that somehow, if only subliminally, he also absorbed a reminder that when dealing with temptation, you should consider looking before you leap.
However, “Win Win” is rated R by the Motion Picture Assn. of America for its liberal sprinkling of F-bombs, since a film with more than one F-word gets an R whether it has a worthy message or is just out to make a lot of moolah. “The King’s Speech,” which won the best picture Oscar for its uplifting portrayal of a British monarch’s struggle with a debilitating stutter, was also rated R for one brief outburst of profanity during a speech therapy session. The MPAA decision provoked a storm of protest from the filmmakers and a wide swath of critics, myself included.
“We don't ignore the rule just because it’s a good movie,” MPAA ratings board chief Joan Graves told me this week. “A lot of people will take their kids to see an R-rated movie if it’s just because of the language, because they feel they can explain that to them. But if the language is there and we don't tell them, they have a fit.”
And there’s the rub. An R rating has considerable commercial consequences, especially for a low-budget film like “Win Win” that would struggle to find an audience, no matter what its rating, in a marketplace dominated by studio behemoths with $40-million marketing campaigns. Having already grossed $6.7 million in its first six weeks of release, “Win Win” (which had a budget of less than $10 million) is on its way to a modest profit. But Searchlight insiders say the studio is leaving a couple of million dollars on the table, largely because the R rating restricts its youth-oriented advertising and requires anyone under 17 who wants to see it to be accompanied by a parent or guardian.
When I spoke to McCarthy about the MPAA’s ruling, he seemed more incredulous than angry, especially when I told him that Graves believes that parents in Middle America are more concerned about bad language in movies than excessive violence.
“When we had screenings all around the country, I never saw any of that,” McCarthy told me. “People didn't even realize the film had gotten an R for language. When I'd tell parents, they were indignant. They said, ‘Kids hear that language on the playground every day. Why would they punish a movie that has so many positive messages about family relationships and the world we live in today?’ "
McCarthy acknowledged having a “really frank conversation” with Searchlight brass before shooting the film. “They asked if we’d consider changing the language, but they didn't force anything on me, even though I didn't have final cut. My attitude was that we'd lose a lot of authenticity if we didn't show the way kids actually talk at wrestling practice and in the locker room.”
To me, the biggest drawback of the MPAA’s rules on language is their lack of flexibility. When the board hands out ratings for violence, they are based on a consensus that the violence is extreme enough to merit an R instead of a PG-13. They wouldn't dream of installing a purely numerical rating, where a film with 73 bloody corpses could receive a PG-13 but adding a 74th corpse would trigger an R.
But that's exactly what the ratings board does with language. A PG-13 film can have one F-bomb, but two F-bombs merits an R. And by the way, not all profanity is equal in the eyes of the MPAA. A film can feature unfettered use of a barnyard epithet that rhymes with fit (a word I can’t say in this blog) without triggering an R rating. When I asked Graves why one word is considered filthier than the other, she replied: “In the perception of most parents, the F-word is worse, maybe because it’s sexually derived. I mean, if your son dropped a carton of orange juice and said [the F-word] instead of [a barnyard epithet], wouldn’t you be more upset?”
I guess what I’m most upset about is that the board is fine with having a language litmus test while totally ignoring the moral message or values of a movie. Graves argues that values are in the eye of the beholder, and cited the example of Mel Gibson’s R-rated “Passion of the Christ”: Appalled by the film's graphic violence, many viewers urged the ratings board to give it an NC-17, while others, moved by what they regarded as its authentic portrait of the Crucifixion story, said it should have a PG-13 rating to make it widely accessible.
But “Win Win” is a film that unites, not divides. In fact, I find myself in total agreement with Daniel Thompson, a critic at ChristianAnswers.net, who gave the movie a five-star review, saying that the movie’s strong language is authentic and accurate and “indicative of what you would hear in many normal households, high schools, or law offices across America, and it never comes off as gratuitous.... It provides the audience with two powerful and redemptive messages: Everyone makes mistakes, and you cannot put a price on love. Messages of that caliber, explained so clearly, are rare in modern cinema. For that reason alone, ‘Win Win’ is a true winner.”
Though she wouldn’t give any specific examples, Graves acknowledged that the ratings board has cut certain films some slack, saying “if a film is on the borderline, we’ve changed a rating because we admired the benefits of a film.”
It's time they gave that benefit of doubt to films like “Win Win.” If the board respects the message of a film like “Win Win” then it should get the PG-13 seal of approval, along with the caveat that “the film does contain a number of profanities.” In a world where so many dreadful movies get a free pass from the ratings board, if the MPAA “admires the benefits of a film,” it shouldn't be afraid of letting parents know how it feels.
Photo: Bobby Cannavale, left, and Paul Giamatti in a scene from "Win Win." Credit: Kimberly Wright / 20th Century Fox