I was just looking over the current release list and came upon two movies that seem to have been pretty much forgotten already, Ron Howard's Angels & Demons (247 screens) and Tony Scott's The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (383 screens). The first one is a sequel and the second one is a remake. The first one is absolutely terrible, earning a 37% on Rotten Tomatoes, while the second one is merely mediocre, earning a 52% rating. But what's truly astonishing is that Angels & Demons is a box office smash, with $133 million to its name, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 has earned less than half that, with $64 million.
Let's look at little closer at this. These are two of the summer's only movies that may have been aimed a little above the heads of young boys. All three of the name-above-the-title stars, Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington and John Travolta, are in their 50s. This ostensibly means that the studios wanted to entice older audiences out of their comfortable homes and into theaters. But unfortunately, if you're a fifty-something and you go out to see The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, what's the first thing you get? You get one of Tony Scott's quick-cut, jumpy, razzle-dazzle openings with Jay-Z boasting "I got 99 problems but a bitch ain't one." Not to mention the rest of the breakneck movie, which practically reaches out from the screen and slaps you in the face. We can also assume that audiences in their fifties can remember the far, far superior Walter Matthau version from 1974, and didn't particularly care to have their memories sullied. Anthony Lane summed it up perfectly in the opening line of his recent New Yorker review: "A close analysis of the differences between the new Tony Scott movie, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, and the movie of the same name from 1974 can be boiled down to this: one film ends with an armed face-off, on a bridge, with cops running, traffic snorting, and trains rattling by; the other ends with a sneeze. Can you possibly guess which is which?" In other words, Scott has hedged his bets; he wanted an older audience to come see his movie, but he threw in enough slam-bang stuff just in case the kids wanted to come out too. Unfortunately, neither audience wanted to suffer through one part to get to the other.
Moving over to Angels & Demons. It's much stupider and more annoying, and it lacks the playful back-and-forth between two seasoned movie stars like Washington and Travolta. Instead, Hanks has been paired with a pretty girl whose name and face I can't even remember and with whom he had no chemistry; the movie didn't even bother to suggest a romance. But though, on the whole, I'd choose Tony Scott over Ron Howard in any cinematic contest, Howard has something that Scott doesn't have: patience. Howard's film is much smoother and less frantic than Scott's, and thereby more relaxing. And because it's so serious and somber, an audience that's not thinking about it too much can walk away thinking it has seen something smart. Grownups like to feel relaxed and smart.
None of this has anything to do with the art of cinema, and in the art of commerce, hindsight is 20/20. But here's a lesson: when making your movie about grownups, forget about teenage boys. Don't worry about them. They'll have plenty of other things to see.