‘Booksmart’ Did Not Fail, and Who Cares if it Did, Anyway?

All the Snooty-Snoots are in a Panic

The Box Office Failure of Olivia Wilde’s ‘Booksmart’ Is A Sadly Predictable Tragedy, read the Forbes.com headline yesterday. “Booksmart was set up for failure,” Slate moaned. This reflected the sense of panic that pervaded my social-media feed. People were desperately begging their friends and followers to go see ‘Booksmart’ with the urgency of a fundraiser for an organ transplant or a family who’s lost their home to a Twister. “For the love of God,” one post read. “Please don’t let this movie fail.”

First of all: what did you people expect? Booksmart opened the same weekend as a live-action musical remake of a beloved Disney franchise, which starred one of America’s most guaranteed bankable actors and a supporting cast packed with people of color. How is that supposed to lose at the box-office to an indie film about a couple of smart girls who want to party before they go to Yale? Booksmart also had to deal with John Wick, a much-loved, and super-awesome action franchise, a Pokémon movie, and the remnants of The Avengers, all popular and well-reviewed. In what universe was it supposed to succeed?

I’m not exactly sure where the word “tragedy” comes in here. While the movie didn’t exactly destroy all monsters, it still earned seven million dollars, pretty good considering its biggest stars were Lisa Kudrow and Jason Sudeikis. I kept seeing stuff like, “you need to support this movie if you want to see more female-fronted comedies in Hollywood.” In the era of Time’s Up and #MeToo, do you really believe that’s the case? Because Booksmart didn’t earn more money than Aladdin, the rising tide of female power and influence in Hollywood is going to stop? I don’t think so.

The movie’s “failure” is nonexistent. Every single person involved in the making of this production, from the director to the writers to the actors, is rich, or at least upper-middle-class, with great health insurance and limitless prospects. This movie will launch 100 careers.

The panic about how “this shows that there isn’t a market for movies about smart girls” is also nonsense. ‘Lady Bird,’ a very indie movie about a smart girl bound for college, made more than $40 million and won multiple Oscar nominations. ‘Blockers,’ a movie about smart girls trying to get laid before college, made more than that. Critics widely hailed it as one of the best comedies of 2018. Maybe Booksmart (which our reviewer gave four stars) is just kind of Blockers but without John Cena, a hugely popular wrestler, to draw people into the theaters. Instead of seeing this as a disaster for girl-led comedies, maybe this is just a late-arriving entry into a genre that’s starting to experience some fatigue.

Also, maybe there’s something not 100 percent relatable about a comedy centered on two genius girls who are going to Yale or Yale-like schools. The popular kids who they resent are also going to those types of colleges. It’s pretty much guaranteed. That sense of blinkered entitlement pervades the entire proceedings. Booksmart made about as much money as a mid-tier Woody Allen movie back in Allen’s heyday. That’s its natural audience, art-house smarty pants, not some imagined horde seeking yet another dose of girl-power validation.

But in case you haven’t noticed lately, we’re in the midst of a full-blown cultural panic about sending our kids to elite institutions of higher learning. Most kids have bigger problems about whether or not they get to make out with a girl before it’s time for Yale. Booksmart has charm, but it’s also a movie for elites, by elites, and of elites. Most Americans are never going anywhere near the Ivies.

Aladdin is about a poor schmuck who becomes unfathomably wealthy and has incredible adventures by pure chance. That’s the real fantasy that most Americans have, not getting their rocks off before going to live in New Haven for four years. That’s why all the smart people are in a movie panic this week. It’s not that the public didn’t like a movie. It’s that they didn’t like a movie about us. 


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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

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