While Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., and other politicians push new restrictions on Hollywood's marketing of R-rated movies to children, the big studios have already made the debate irrelevant through their flagrant abuse of their own rating system.
Two current releases bearing the supposedly benign PG-13 rating send utterly irresponsible messages directly to a youthful audience, but because they avoided the R designation, worried politicians -- and concerned parents -- will foolishly ignore their impact.
The skillfully directed, consistently well-acted crazy/beautiful, for instance, stars the gorgeous and talented Kirsten Dunst as a 17-year-old free spirit who cheerfully engages in daily drunkenness, illegal drug use, orgiastic partying and aggressive sexual behavior with a boy she has just met. Taking a straight-arrow football star (Jay Hernandez) to her lavish Pacific Palisades home, she leads him to her bedroom. When her nervous partner spots a middle-aged man standing just beneath the window, she continues her assault and laughingly reassures him, ''Oh, don't worry -- it's just my father.''
The message is that if you're pretty and charismatic enough, you're truly indestructible.
Of course, many real-life teenagers may engage in similarly outrageous behavior, but not without messy, complicated consequences. In the film, however, the hero never helps the self-destructive heroine confront her problem drinking; instead, she influences him to let his grades plummet, alienate his hard-working Mexican-American family and walk out on midterms. Nevertheless, he still wins a scholarship to Annapolis, and the heroine (after sympathetic cops overlook her drunkenness and drug abuse) achieves a teary reconciliation with her congressman father (Bruce Davison), who agrees to make her a higher priority in his life. The feel-good ending sends the unmistakable message that if you're pretty and charismatic enough, then you're truly indestructible.
That's the same theme running through the similarly slick (and hateful) The Fast and the Furious. A magnetic young cast led by Paul Walker, Vin Diesel and Michelle Rodriguez lends sex appeal to the sport of street racing -- with elaborately engineered hot rods hurtling through the streets of Los Angeles at 170 miles an hour and (of course) no serious injuries to any of the principals. When not engaged in this illegal racing (which attracts huge, eager crowds in the movie), the young speed demons enjoy drunken parties crowded with gorgeous women of every description. Several of the main characters also engage in a bit of larceny on the side -- hijacking trucks at high speed on the freeway to steal their cargoes. A newcomer to the gang happens to be an undercover cop sent to investigate these crimes, but like the audience, he's so charmed by the gang leader that he can't bring himself to arrest him.
Of course, all reasonably mature moviegoers understand that the hot-rodding in The Fast and the Furious -- including a scene of two cars crashing through a railroad crossing just inches ahead of an onrushing locomotive -- is outrageously unrealistic and could never be reproduced in real life. Yet the teens and pre-teens encouraged to see the film by the absurd PG-13 rating, comprise the one segment of the audience most likely to imitate some of the behavior displayed on screen. In fact, USA TODAY recently reported that police departments across the country worry about precisely that sort of imitation.
The PG-13 category allows wildly unsuitable material to smuggle its way past walls erected by even the most protective parents.
The PG-13 category has become, alas, the Trojan horse in the movie-rating system -- allowing wildly unsuitable material to smuggle its way past walls erected by even the most protective parents. The Motion Picture Association of America, the industry group that bestows the ratings, never provides detailed explanations of its decisions, but clearly ignores the underlying messages that films convey. Instead of considering a movie's moral or behavioral impact, the ratings board counts four letter words, or measures the extent of frontal nudity, or analyzes the nature of graphic gore. Ironically, such movies as The Fast and the Furious and crazy/beautiful might have been more appropriate for teenagers had the violence in the films been more realistic and disturbing: At least in that case they might have suggested negative consequences for the life choices they glorify.
The focus on superficial elements such as nudity and foul words leads to the anomalous situation in which Oscar winners with thought-provoking messages, such as Traffic, Shakespeare in Love and Saving Private Ryan, all drew the restrictive R rating, officially banning children under 17 unless accompanied by an adult.
Meanwhile, such racy and exploitative material as crazy/beautiful and The Fast and the Furious earns a PG-13 rating that encourages the attendance of kids, since not even those below age 10 are kept out of the theaters. Moreover, many parents ignore the crucial distinction between PG-13 and the familiar, reassuring PG -- assuming that anything other than R is by definition appropriate for children.
One way to address this common mistake would be for Hollywood to adopt a less-confusing shorthand: Instead of PG 13, the designation R-13 would recognize the undeniable fact that this intermediate rating is actually far closer to R in content than it is to the kids-friendly PG.
If the movie industry wanted to act responsibly, then this new R-13 designation would also restrict admission by children 12 and under -- unless accompanied by an adult. Even without such efforts, a new label would signal parents to consider such releases more carefully before they cheerfully send their kids.
More importantly, the ratings board owes it to the public to begin considering content as well as surface details. If Hollywood's chief lobbyist, Jack Valenti, would adjust the ratings system accordingly, he could do more to block the marketing of dangerous material to young people than the politicians who hope to commandeer the issue.
This article original appeared in USA Today 7.2.01