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‘The House,’ ‘Rough Night,’ and Why the R-Rated, Raunchy Comedy’s Box Office Partying Days Might Be Over

Variety logo Variety 7/2/2017 Seth Kelley
© Provided by Variety

In the near decade since “The Hangover” earned over half a billion dollars worldwide, R-rated comedies have chased the sensation, but few have come close.

This summer has been especially punishing for adult comedies. Most recently, “The House,” starring Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler as a couple that starts an underground casino to put their daughter through college, opened to only $9 million. Two weekends before, Scarlett Johansson’s “Rough Nightopened to $8 million domestic. Not even Dwayne Johnson’s constant Twitter chatter could save “Baywatch” from flopping over Memorial Day weekend, and a similar story applied a few weeks prior to Amy Schumer’s “Snatched.” Four R-rated comedies so far this summer, and four less-than-stellar openings — where did the appetite go?

Some studio execs have pointed to the growing role that Rotten Tomatoes plays in driving buzz on social media. A swath of negative or even mediocre reviews, the argument goes, could make a potential viewer reconsider buying a ticket, which is more expensive than ever. When looking at the movies that have underperformed this summer, the RT scores are middle of the road at best — “Snatched” (35%); “Baywatch” (20%); “Rough Night” (48%); and “The House” (16%). Compare that to comedies since “The Hangover” (79%) that have posted the highest earnings for R-rated comedies — “21 Jump Street” (85%) and its sequel (84%); “Bridesmaids” (90%); and “Neighbors” (73%). Another way of stating the theory: Movies that aren’t considered high-quality by critics tend to make less money.

But why aren’t critics and audiences pleased? Another point that’s been raised is that many of the scripts produced and released this summer were sold in a pre-Trump era. The definition of what makes a good comedy has changed quickly and dramatically in the past year. “Saturday Night Live” and late-night television have captured much of the comedy zeitgeist during and especially since the election — how are movies supposed to compete? Unlike a daily or weekly television show with a team of writers reacting to that day’s trending story, most movies spend years in development before hitting the big screen. Studios can only hope that the next big idea for what comedy means today is already in the works.

The exceptions to the rule over the past two or so years have been R-rated comedies that manage to crossover with other genres. Early 2016 breakout “Deadpool” managed to infuse comedy into the superhero genre in a way that resonated with audiences, while the “Guardians of the Galaxy” franchise has a similar effect. The same goes for last year’s late-summer release “Sausage Party,” a box office success that packaged elements of any raunchy R-rated comedy into an animated adventure. Even this year’s February release “Get Out” (which hardly anyone would argue is more comedy than horror) still managed to incorporate comedic elements, courtesy of its creator, Jordan Peele.

If this summer is any indication, the box office may never see another “Hangover” (or “Hangover Part II” for that matter). “The House” in particular is a sign of changing tides. Ferrell, who could reliably open any comedy to around $30 million — he and Poehler did so in 2007 with “Blades of Glory” — has seen two of his lowest opening weekends ever with his past two films, “The House” and “Zoolander 2.” Who knows? Maybe “Daddy’s Home 2” will reunite him with his comedy throne. Even this summer still has one more shot when “Girls Trip” hits theaters in a few weekends. Nevertheless, it’s time to face the sobering idea that the R-rated, raunchy comedy’s partying days may be over.

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