Ron Howard wants you to know he’s dedicated his whole career to never offending anyone. When Angels & Demons (opening May 15), his sequel to The Da Vinci Code, got the expected accusations of anti-Catholicism, Howard took to the Huffington Post to write that the new film is just “an exciting mystery, set in the awe-inspiring beauty of Rome,” and that it “treats the Church with respect—even a degree of reverence—for its traditions and beliefs.” The way Howard blogs is the way he makes movies; he specializes in taking big budgets, stars and subjects and turning them all into respectful, reverent, and slightly dull movies. He’s almost made an art out of being bland; as he put it in 2006, “I’m the type of person that likes to please everyone.”
Based on comments like that, it would be easy to dismiss Howard as simply another Hollywood middlebrow. And yet the former child star has done some interesting work—just not as a director. As co-founder of the production company Imagine Entertainment, he has his name on some well-regarded television series like 24 and Sports Night. Most famously, he’s one of the producers of Arrested Development, which he also narrated, and will perform both of those functions on the upcoming Arrested Development movie. Apart from being able to spot good material, he has a genuine sense of humour about himself; last year he reprised his characters from The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days in the most famous pro-Obama ad of the election cycle. But put him behind a camera and, except for a few appealing comedies from early in his career (like Splash and Night Shift), he makes films that hit you over the head with pro-social messages, accompanied by heartwarming music, overwrought lighting effects, and lots of sentiment.
That description also applies to the work of Howard’s contemporaries, like Steven Spielberg and Rob Reiner. But Howard seems to have a special gift for taking any subject, from schizophrenia to Catholic conspiracies, and turning it into mush. His film of How the Grinch Stole Christmas replaced the charm of Dr. Seuss’s story with heavy sentimentality and Jim Carrey slapstick. He won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, in which he sanitized a rather sad real-life story of mental illness (Howard later remarked that “honesty on film can be very enriching,” suggesting that he hadn’t watched his own movie) and followed it up with Cinderella Man, in which Russell Crowe triumphed against the odds in the nicest version of the Depression ever put on film.
Last year, Howard seemed to redeem himself a little by making the well-acted adaptation of the stage play Frost/Nixon. But even that movie reduced a real-world situation to a simple story, where characters explain the point of the film just in case we’re too dumb to get it. (Before the Frost interview, Nixon’s chief of staff tells him: “It’s not as if there’s going to be any revelations. No one has pinned anything on you.”) If it weren’t basically non-threatening and easily digestible, it wouldn’t be a Ron Howard film.
Why does Howard make such middle-of-the-road movies, even as he lends his name to television shows that are darker and smarter than his own projects? Part of it may be the way he sees himself, as an old-fashioned Hollywood craftsman. He told aintitcool.com last year that “I never want to impose a style or a stamp on any movie.” If you look at it that way, his refusal to take a strong point of view on his stories (beyond offering respect for all beliefs) makes his films more anonymous and therefore, as he sees it, better. Besides, his reputation for middlebrow entertainment may actually help sell his movies. Peter Morgan, the writer of the play Frost/Nixon, told the New York Times he gave the movie rights to Howard because “I wanted somebody whose name up on the poster would make an audience feel comfortable.” With another director, the story might have been an art-house movie; with Howard attached, audiences saw Morgan’s play for the “comfortable” entertainment it was.
That may be Howard’s real gift, knowing how to make any material palatable, whether it’s a play, a bestselling potboiler, or the classic horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft (recently announced as the source material of his next film). Howard said last year that “I know I’ve been commercially successful, but I’m not really a guy looking for safe, middle-of-the-road success.” If he wasn’t looking for it, he sure found it, and he’s sticking with it.