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The MPAA's mystifying call on 'Blue Valentine'

October 8, 2010 |  2:55 pm

Blueval

Pretty much since the Ryan Gosling-Michelle Williams romantic drama "Blue Valentine" screened to enthusiastic reaction at Sundance in January, executives at distributor the Weinstein Co. have all but boasted that the movie was being cut down from the original.

Indeed, when we saw the movie at Cannes, a few scenes had been trimmed from the two-hour-plus Sundance version. At Toronto last month (where we didn't see it again), we were told by Weinstein executives that more minutes had been lopped off.

That makes it all the more bizarre that the movie was given an NC-17 by the Motion Picture Assn. of America ratings group CARA this week. (The group doesn't offer much detail on why it gives the rating it does; we're awaiting further word from the Weinstein Co.)

Derek Cianfrance's movie shows plenty of harrowing moments of a couple arguing and brutalizing each each other psychologically. It's not easy to watch, but it's hardly graphic or hardcore in any conventional sense of the term; it's emotional brutality and explictness, nothing more. There was no scene we could find in the film's extended version that would merit something stronger than an R. 

And certainly if the movie was cut down from its earlier versions it wouldn't include more offending material. (There's also an irony in that the company was shortening the movie to make it more commercial, but then got slapped with an NC-17 anyway.)

The "Blue Valentine" ruling (which, incidentally, can still be appealed) surfaces on the same day Universal was moved to change a trailer for the upcoming Vince Vaughn-Kevin James buddy dramedy "The Dilemma." The short version of the controversy -- about which my colleague Patrick Goldstein has an insightful post here -- is that the film's trailer (which you can see below) begins with Vaughn going on a riff that "electric cars are gay," before he explains that he doesn't mean "homosexual gay" but "my-parents-are-chaperoning-the-dance gay."

After several weeks of public criticism -- and, more to the point, Anderson Cooper going on "The Ellen DeGeneres show" this week to say he found the line offensive -- Universal said Friday it would change the trailer (but not necessarily the movie) and release a new promo spot.

The blogosphere has lit up with talk of whether the line was truly scandalous  -- it was either the worst thing ever or entirely innocuous, apparently). Arguments were tossed back and forth about what it meant that "The Hangover" and other movies have also used the word "gay" as a pejorative.  Certainly the context seems to be a factor; put Vaughn's line in a funny moment instead of in a scene that frankly doesn't even have much to do with the rest of the trailer and we suspect that, for better or worse, it wouldn't provoke the same reaction.

But the issue of this one small moment may be small potatoes when taken in the context of the debates about "Blue Valentine" and the MPAA. One of the arguments in favor of the MPAA's rating system is that if the studios were left to offer this kind of guidance individually, they would conveniently or self-interestedly forget to disclose a film's real content.

But what the "Dilemma" instance shows, in just a slightly different circumstance, is that faced with the possibility of inappropriate content, the studio did take action. It may have done so too late for some people, and the action is unlikely to satisfy those who didn't want the scene in the first place. But in the end, a combination of public pressure and a studio's own standards (or marketing fears) led to action -- and an action that probably is at least as sensible as the MPAA's attitude on "Blue Valentine," if not more so.

It's easy to get on a soapbox about the MPAA; the R-rating for the middle-aged romcom "It's Complicated" comes to mind, among many other cases. And the truth is that "Blue Valentine" was unlikely to get more than a niche release, especially with the difficult subject matter, and "The King's Speech" getting the bulk of Weinstein Co. attention. But for an indie movie that struggled against the odds to get made for nearly a decade and then seemed to be on an upward surge, it's a particularly tough blow.

Then again, the director of "Blue Valentine" is hardly the first talented filmmaker to get an NC-17 in the last decade -- Ang Lee and Darren Aronfosky have earned the distinction too. We doubt that will help the movie or bolster the case to the MPAA. But it just may make Derek Cianfrance feel a little better.

-- Steven Zeitchik

twitter.com/ZeitchikLAT

Photo: Blue Valentine. Credit: The Weinstein Company

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