Recently I found myself watching the Ryan Reynolds/Amy Smart/Anna Faris rom-com, Just Friends. From the opening credits I realised there are better films I could give my time to; I could delve into the Kurosawa box-set I just bought, watch a classic Bogart movie, or even a different Ryan Reynolds movie (Buried, perhaps). Nevertheless, I still sat there and watched the entire film. The experience was not unlike eating a whole “Share Pack” of crisps to yourself: you enjoy the familiar flavours, sometimes looking at the half-empty contents and debating whether you should finish, but once you’re done you look at yourself with shame. Perhaps there isn’t anything wrong with sitting down with a corny rom-com or a brainless action flick but at the end of the day they wouldn’t have the categorisation of “Guilty Pleasures” without a reason.
The words “guilty” and “pleasure” are peculiarly paradoxical and looking at the phrase with scrutiny it’s a wonder that you’d actively pursue something that would leave you feeling bad about yourself. Despite this idea, many do switch on the TV, pop in a DVD or head out to the local cinema to sit down and watch a film that has very little worth. It’s understandable that not everyone wants to be educated by a film, nor do we want a film that may challenge or upset us and so we ease into an undemanding movie. Yet, with all this in mind, films like these are still made with handfuls of studio’s money and are continuously profitable. What I want to assess in this article are the pros and cons to this type of film.
Let’s begin with the pros:
Had a long week at work? You get home and the last thing you want to be doing is mulling over the morality of a prosecuted man in an epic French drama. So instead, you look over at your DVD collection and choose Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigolo. It may not be deemed the best film ever but you chuckle occasionally at the silly people being rude and outlandish. It’s also short, a mere hour and twenty minutes of your time to provide some form of entertainment. You finish watching it and it’s only eleven o’clock; that gives you time to watch another if you want. You’ve watched the first, how about putting on the sequel? That’s perhaps going too far but already you have an example of some of the benefits of the guilty pleasure. In most cases the simple-minded comedies, romances, and action or horror films are relatively short in their running time. After cooking dinner, reading the paper and checking emails and Facebook, the evening is drawing to a close and a long film is unfeasible in conjunction to getting a good night’s rest.
Going to sleep also may not be helped by a hard-hitting drama or tense thriller, so choosing those guilty pleasures works against unrest. The stories of those types of films are also so conventional with plots so foreseeable that you needn’t give them much thought. Watching something like Friends with Benefits, knowing that the two people who remain “just friends” will eventually get together, has an obvious narrative pay-off. As soon as Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis expectedly lock lips you sit back and watch the credits roll, not needing to think anymore about that character coupling or the events that have and could surround their relationship.
As you watch a film like this the pure escapist ideology can also act as a “what if” for your own delusions. Look how easily Adam Sandler got Brooklyn Decker in Go Just With It and Jennifer Aniston – if he can get women like that maybe I can…and we’ll live happily ever after in Hawaii. The same works for the other gender: Sandra Bullock may seem pushy in The Proposal but she’s loveable enough by the end to win the heart of the charming Ryan Reynolds. No need to think of ramifications of work-related relationships or the reality of ever meeting a woman or guy like that in your everyday life; if it can happen on film it can surely happen to you.
This will never in a million years be your life. Enjoy the display of bountiful romances and amusing episodes as it’s mostly a fiction. You could pretend that these films reflect certain aspects of life but they don’t. If you want a more typical romance watch Blue Valentine. Not only does it star Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams (two great bonuses to a film experience) but it will never need the “guilty” preceding the “pleasure” to describe it. It may not always be a joyous picture but it holds a different mirror up to the subject of love and marriage – not like the rom-com convex and concave amusement-park mirrors.
Perhaps it has become unoriginal to draw inspiration from reality and if the guilty pleasures cavalcade are anything to go by you can confide in that prediction. A typical 21st century action-film usually has a blend of sci-fi, horror or comedy – only one category being anywhere close to the genre. Recently The Raid recalled the basic aesthetic of the action film, à la Bourne and Die Hard, a million miles away from Transformers’ aliens or the clichéd evil corporation of G. I. Joe. The guilty pleasures are such because they clearly know how rife with cliché, convention and monotony they are – but they also understand that people flock to that. The writers never need to insert social-realism or a Ken Loach-like introspection into human morality, all they need is a man/woman unlucky in love or adept at saving the world and you have a film.
If you are someone who tries not to embrace the guilty pleasure films it makes it all the more difficult when you join the herd and tolerate one. There are many reasons why these types of films get classed in such a way, the most paramount being the viewer usually feels the most embittered with themselves after watching one. If you’re happy seeing the same story rehashed time and time again carry on. But if you know you shouldn’t be seeing them then check Empire’s Top 500 Films and live the experience of classic Hollywood, acclaimed foreign films, interesting documentaries, indie pieces or just some well-made silver screen studio gems. The ultimate con of the guilty pleasure is making you believe you’re watching a different film; you never are and it’s all a basic (if occasionally entertaining) formula.
Piers McCarthy – Follow me on Twitter.