There are grim movies, and then there are movies that should list the Grim Reaper in the credits. No Country for Old Men, the 2007 Oscar-winning drama, falls into the latter category, but it's as cuddly as a hamster compared with The Road, the latest adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel. The Road is set in a post-apocalyptic world where everything and almost everyone is dead. There are no trees, no grass, no sun, no food, and, worst of all, no booze to take the edge off. The few survivors are sometimes driven to devouring each other. Our two protagonists are tired, gaunt, and nameless: Man (Viggo Mortensen) and Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who spend the movie navigating through these various hazards on their long journey to ... where? I'm tempted to say it beats the hell out of me, but that may be the answer.
The Road seems to suggest that mankind is on a dreary march to endless pain, and after sitting through this season's Oscar contenders, I can relate. This has always been the time when the studios drag out their heavy films for award "consideration." But in the last few years they've been getting uncomfortably weighty. There's even a movie called A Serious Man—I had to get up and leave in the middle, it's so depressing—and it's a comedy.
You can blame Hollywood's doom and gloom on the Oscars, but I'm not going to. Instead, I think it's George W. Bush's fault. Most liberal directors felt restless under his presidency, and they pushed the envelope with over-the-top, operatic tragedies. From 1997 to 2000, during Bill Clinton's second term, 20 percent of the best-picture nominees were comedies (Shakespeare in Love, The Full Monty, As Good as It Gets, etc.). During Bush's second term, the Academy nominated only two comedies—Junoand Little Miss Sunshine—for best picture, and roughly three fourths of all the films (The Departed, There Will Be Blood, The Reader) fixated on death.
If the apocalypse really is coming, as these movies suggest, Hollywood might be the first hit. During bad times, moviegoers historically look for escapist entertainment. At the height of the Great Depression, people flocked to gangster movies and screwball comedies. Now even the popcorn blockbusters have gone to the dark side. The kids in the latest Harry Potter and Twilightmovies could use antidepressants. The new Terminatorfelt as if it could have been written by McCarthy. People are always complaining that Hollywood movies suck because the studios care only about topping the other guy's special effects, but the way films pile on the pain amounts to its own kind of grotesque pissing contest. It's starting to feel like Misery Porn.
No one is immune. A "feel good" movie now means you have to feel your way through two bleak hours before you get to the "happy" ending. Last year that was the recipe of Slumdog Millionaire. This year's version is Precious, which follows a high-school girl who is raped by her father and abused by her drug-addict mother. On paper, Precious has all the feel-good markings—it's coproduced by Oprah, and we know how she's committed to helping us uplift our lives. She apparently wasn't in the room when the studio coined the film's tag line, which starts with "Life is hard. Life is short. Life is painful." Oh, and by the way, "Happy holidays!"