Fall movies are engrossing but depressing

A strike looms, the war seems unrelenting and the country is fragmented politically. So here’s Hollywood’s response: a new genre called the feel-bad movie.

The plots of the feel-bad genre focus on revenge-seeking crime victims, terrorist assaults, disappearing Iraq vets and lovers who’ve learned to hate each other — really hate each other. And the guarantee to audiences is that they will be at once engrossed … and depressed.

Now, I’m not a cinematic philistine; I applaud filmmakers for dealing with real issues in the real world. At the same time, the feel-bad genre (which is only in its early stages) is becoming downright oppressive. Filmgoers have a right to ask: When do we get some comic relief?

Remember when there were “date movies?” Welcome to the date-from-hell movie — “The Heartbreak Kid,” the new Ben Stiller comedy. Well, not quite a comedy. About halfway into it, the Farrelly Brothers, who co-wrote and directed, decide they want to stop the laughs and tune up the misery. Their characters turn ugly, at once numbingly loquacious and profoundly nasty. The feel-good Elaine May-Neil Simon comedy has been reshaped into a feel-bad mess.

Once again, there’s a place for movies like this, but remember when Hollywood felt an obligation to leave you laughing? Reacting to the woes of the Depression, and later of World War II, the studios mandated several strains of feel-good movies: The stylish Fred Astaire musicals, the escapist romance of the Cary Grant films or even the lunatic humor of the Marx Brothers and, now and then, grand (and escapist) sagas like “Gone With the Wind.”

That wasn’t the full palette of what Hollywood turned out, but films like these represented joyous relief for those stressed out by wartime sacrifices or joblessness.

There’s still some escapist fare around. Families are trooping to “The Game Plan” from Disney. Teen girls and ’60s survivors are relishing “Across the Universe.” Folks who like very long train rides across India are coveting “The Darjeeling Limited.” And, of course, filmgoers who truly abhor both men and women can take refuge in “The Heartbreak Kid.”

And the rest of us can grin and bear it. The feel-bad genre is just now gaining steam with a veritable onslaught of “serious” films waiting for release between now and the end of awards season. Some will win ebullient praise from the critics, and the kudos will flow.

And for those seeking comic relief — well, there’s always Comedy Central. Or a stiff drink.

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