In this column, I discuss the evolution of raunch:
I didn’t watch R-rated movies, as a rule, until I was in my mid-20s. It had to do with private, deeply held religious views, which evolved as I was baptized into the supplemental religion of film as art and cultural reflection.
As I started to watch R-rated films, I didn’t watch them all at once. I started out with dramas, then war dramas, then films from the 1970s. The last group of explicit movies for my gradually desensitizing brain to allow in through my eyes and ears were R-rated comedies.
I didn’t immediately see the value of watching a comedy that was rated R, because unlike the other groups, I saw no larger value that they could contribute. If a war film had violence, or a drama about coming of age had sex, or a film from the 1970s had just about anything, I could justify it. But a comedy that indulged in raunch for no other reason? I saw no value in that.
That has changed to a degree — I now appreciate raunchiness when it’s done in a way that celebrates silliness and anarchy, and when it doesn’t put down or objectify others. As an example, “Bridesmaids” is a delightful comedy that wouldn’t be the same without its all-out raunch.
Even the recent PG-rated “Captain Underpants” is a movie I would describe as a PG R-rated comedy, and I loved that film for exactly that. Filled to the brim with jokes that push boundaries (just smaller-scale boundaries), the film is a great deal of outrageous fun.
It’s now been many years since I’ve been watching pretty much anything, and I pay less attention now to the ways in which the films I see match or diverge from my own personal sense of morality. This change, I must say, has made the experience of filmgoing much less stressful for me, and I think it has allowed me to be a more open audience member, more able to critique a film on its own terms.
But last week at Sundance, I saw a film that made me think about how it might not just be me that has changed. And I wonder now if debaucherous films — especially comedies — have actually gotten better as the social forces of the last few decades have shaped what they have become.