Devil's Advocate

Audiences love Jerry Bruckheimer. Critics don't. Like he cares.

"It's like Springsteen once said: 'I make music for the masses, for the common man.' And I think that's kinda what we do in film. We make movies for the common man."

There's a difference, I insist, between songs for the common man and movies for the common man. Such songs tend to be about rusted-out Chevys on blocks sitting in a brown front lawn.

"And those are the same people who pay money for our movies," he says.

Sidney Balwin

But what Springsteen provides is a kind of documentary, I tell him. A Jerry Bruckheimer movie offers nothing but escape.

"Right," he says. "But it's about the audience. He writes about a certain audience who buys his records. We make movies not about an audience, but we make movies that appeal to that audience."

Which is different.

"Sure, a little bit, yeah."

Those who think themselves idealists--that is, those who know no better--wonder, constantly, why Bruckheimer, with all his millions, doesn't abandon the numb and dumb movies he makes for artier fare. They gripe that he could easily churn out a dozen meaningful movies with the money spent on cranking out mindless big-name blow-'em-ups. They insist he alone is ruining the movies by rendering his audience deaf and dull from all those exploding asteroids and Porsches and airplanes brought down on the Vegas strip. His detractors (and I've long been one) believe he has the money and pull to make better movies and wish like hell he would.

Bruckheimer and Simpson did executive produce one critically respected film: The Ref in 1994, three years after their Tom Cruise race-car picture, Days of Thunder, pulled into theaters on an empty tank and cost the pair a lucrative deal with Paramount. But The Ref, a domestic comedy starring Kevin Spacey and Denis Leary, did poorly at the box office, grossing just $11 million. A year later, their Bad Boys, a Michael Bay-directed action-comedy starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence as Eddie Murphy from Beverly Hills Cop, pulled in more than $140 million worldwide. (A Bad Boys sequel will be released in 2003, and Bruckheimer says he's developing a fourth Beverly Hills Cop at Murphy's request.)

Besides, Bruckheimer has little interest in "art" for critics' approval. He loved Good Will Hunting and Shakespeare in Love but likely wouldn't have made them if the scripts had gone to him and not Harvey Weinstein and Miramax. Bruckheimer says he wouldn't "have gotten them on paper," meaning, quite simply, he would have had no idea how to sell them to his audience, which doesn't gladly suffer too many quiet moments of character development. He needs the bang, not the respect.

"I don't think Jerry and I come from too different ends of the spectrum in terms of making movies," Scott says. "My film school was advertising, and advertising is about communication. If you don't communicate, you ain't got a business. And if you think and listen to half the critics today, if we went down that route and followed what they list as their 12 best films on any basis of any year, we wouldn't have an industry, OK? There'd be no fuckin' business! At the end of the day, if I bought 50,000 cans of beans, I wanna fuckin' sell them across the counter, and I want a little bit of profit at the end of it so I can paint my house afterwards, right? And critics forget that....The average price of a Hollywood movie today is $41 million, and that's before you start P&A [prints and ads], right? So with that in mind, I'm very responsible to my investors, and I bloody well make sure that whatever I do I am going to try to tap it from both directions."

Bruckheimer is not a student of cinema; he does not watch a movie, even a favorite (such as Lawrence of Arabia or The Bridge on the River Kwai), more than once. He is, instead, a scholar of audiences: Bruckheimer insists he doesn't attend industry screenings because they're populated by jealous backbiters wishing only failure upon their so-called friends and peers. Only when standing in the back of a theater filled with paying customers can he truly gauge what works and what forces the crowd to shift restlessly in its seats or walk slowly to the bathrooms. "I want to embrace and celebrate what's on that screen with an audience that just paid money and wants the same thing I do," he says.

Like a market researcher, he will try to figure out why the audience reacts as it does to a film, though not horror movies, a genre he admits he doesn't understand. (He and Simpson made only one, 1982's Cat People.) Usually, he says, he can't figure out why they're laughing at things he doesn't find funny. "It's like an inside joke," he insists. He looks for the flaws in a film that keep the audience from embracing it, then goes back to his movies and eradicates such moments. Black Hawk Down is a non-stop thrill ride precisely because of such investigation: Bruckheimer long ago learned audiences, at least his common men and women, have little patience for slow, quiet scenes that exist solely to develop characters, so he and Scott trimmed from Black Hawk Down long speeches given by Somali fighters who explain their side of the story. As a result, the film is bereft of context; it's no Three Kings, the quintessential anti-war film with a conscience. Black Hawk Down is, in many ways, the perfect Bruckheimer film: a bodybuilder stripped of skin and left only with blood and muscle.

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