Recently I re-watched the delightful Planes, Trains, and Automobiles on Netflix, and two things struck me as interesting in the gaps between things striking me as hilarious. One is the way this movie seemed pretty lame when I saw it as a kid (I think I giggled a few times when Steve Martin made hilarious Steve Martin Faces but otherwise didn't get it). Now it seems brilliant. Sure, it's full of plot holes and it's completely over the top, but it captures the misery of traveling at the worst possible times. Second, it's rated R.
No, really. The delightful John Hughes-directed family comedy Planes, Trains, and Automobiles is rated R. In comparison, the 1984 classic Sixteen Candles, which features teenagers doing drugs, drinking, boning, and swearing in addition to actual frontal nudity and somehow it is rated PG. PTA apparently got the R for dropping one too many F-words in the classic rental car counter scene. And let's be honest, who among us does not want to tell Edie McClurg to go fuck herself.
Movie ratings were a bit random for a while in the 1980s until PG-13 came along to bridge the chasm between PG, which are presumably films suitable for anyone over five years old, and the adult content of R films. The decade featured a lot movies that seem completely tame by today's standards that carry R ratings while there are PG films that now appear borderline R-rated. Meanwhile, since the late 2000s – I blame The Dark Knight entirely for this trend – the big studios are essentially allowed to give their big summer blockbusters a PG-13 rating no matter how high the body count. Once they figured out how much they stand to gain financially from getting the lower rating (There sure are a lot of 14-16 year old kids eager to see these movies) R ratings are rare outside of genres like horror, T & A vehicles, or the crudest comedies.
A lot of people in Hollywood complain about the arbitrariness of the ratings and the capriciousness of the MPAA, and it isn't hard to see why. The Joker can jam a pen into some guy's eye socket and walk away with a PG-13 while an uneventful romance-comedy with some brief nudity or two guys making out gets an R. It may seem like one can get away with quite a bit more today than in the past, but at the same time it is likely that the days of PG movies featuring boobs are gone forever.