Movie ratings are a funny thing. Standards on what qualifies a movie as being unsuitable for certain viewers differ from country to country, but most will have at least one rating that signifies a movie is suitable only for those who are adults. In America, the R-rating serves that purpose, with the “R” signifying “restricted,” as in those under 17 are only allowed to watch with an accompanying parent or adult guardian.
For most R-rated movies, the R-rating makes some degree of sense. If a movie is particularly violent, racy, crude, or adult-themed, maybe younger and/or impressionable viewers should wait a few more years before they can safely watch it. Still, some movies aren’t particularly violent, racy, crude, or adult-themed, and they still get slapped with an R-rating. To highlight this, what follows are 10 of the most baffling R-ratings given by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA).
‘Planes, Trains & Automobiles’ (1987)
Few movies about Thanksgiving are as funny or iconic as Planes, Trains & Automobiles. It’s a great – and unexpectedly heartwarming – comedic road movie that perfectly pairs Steve Martin and John Candy, thrust together as Martin’s character tries (and continually fails) to get home to his family in time for Thanksgiving.
There are a few sad moments and a couple of suggestive jokes, but nothing that would earn the movie an R-rating. Instead, the film’s rating comes from one scene where Martin’s character explodes, letting out a profanity-filled tirade while attempting to rent a vehicle, already tired and emotionally drained from his nightmare road trip. It’s a hilarious scene that fits with the character, and it seems unfair that one short scene is enough to deem the film unsuitable for those under 17.
‘The Conjuring’ (2013)
The first movie in what’s become a successful horror series, 2013’s The Conjuring introduces viewers to paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. The two are tasked to help out a family who live in an isolated farmhouse and claim they’re being terrorized by supernatural forces outside their control or comprehension.
The reason the MPAA gave The Conjuring an R-rating? It’s for “sequences of disturbing violence and terror,” but even then, the actual violence on-screen isn’t that grisly, and there’s very little by way of a bodycount, because no humans actually die. Sure, there’s a good deal of horror, but how this gets an R-rating while the bloodier Drag Me to Hell gets a PG-13 rating doesn’t make much sense.
‘Kung Fu Hustle’ (2004)
Kung Fu Hustle is a martial arts movie packed to the brim with fight scenes, and yes, martial arts movies with tons of martial arts are usually going to be pretty violent. The action is frequent in this modern action classic, with a protagonist who wants to prove he’s a great fighter, a group of master warriors in hiding, and a small army of villains – the Ax Gang – for those characters to fight.
While the violence is frequent and sometimes brutal, it’s also done in a comically over-the-top way that prevents it from being disturbing. Much of the film feels like a live-action cartoon, so even if it has more blood than your average PG-13 movie, the context and tone of the violence lessen its impact, making the R-rating feel a little excessive.
‘White Noise’ (2022)
Noah Baumbach’s latest movie, White Noise, is a bit of a mess, but an interesting one. It follows a strange family living in an even stranger town, and what happens when they’re forced to flee said town because of a disastrous chemical spill that causes a toxic cloud to loom large over all those living nearby.
It’s a strange, unnerving, and sometimes slow movie, so it wouldn’t be likely to have much appeal to those under 17. But even then, there’s very little in it that would make it unsuitable for teenage viewers, when it comes to the content itself. The violence is fairly tame, bad language is kept to a minimum, and there’s very little by way of sexual references. Again, it’s not a kid’s movie or anything, but the R-rating still doesn’t make any sense.
‘Eighth Grade’ (2018)
Eighth Grade is a perfect movie for those in their early teens. It’s a funny, down-to-earth, and empathetic movie about an introverted girl named Kayla during the last days of eighth grade, and her struggles to fit in whilst preparing herself for the soon-approaching start of high school.
Despite it being a well-made movie that would probably help those who are in or around eighth grade feel less alone, it was given an R-rating, mostly due to its handful of bad words. Would the MPAA be shocked to find out that high schoolers do in fact swear (arguably more in real life than in this movie), and that to have zero bad language in a movie set in high school would feel unrealistic? But alas… actual eighth graders are apparently too young to watch Eighth Grade, according to the MPAA.
‘The Matrix’ (1999)
Undoubtedly one of the greatest action movies of the 1990s, The Matrix simultaneously expanded and blew minds upon release, and remains an exciting, maybe even timeless thrill ride to this day. It had an interesting world, memorable characters, a fantastic and unique sci-fi premise, and some of the most iconic action scenes of the past few decades.
It’s those action scenes that ended up getting the film an R-rating, as otherwise, it’s fairly light on things like bad language or adult content. It’s hard to see what exactly made that violence seem worthy of an R-rating today, though. Sure, there’s a good deal of hand-to-hand fighting and shootouts, but there’s little blood, which makes the film feel like it’d be okay for most teenagers to watch.
‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent’ (2022)
The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a comedic action movie that features Nicolas Cage playing a heavily fictionalized version of himself. In it, he finds himself wrapped up with the CIA, who want to use him to get close to a high-ranking criminal who’s also a big Cage fan, and invites Cage to his birthday for $1 million.
The plot is silly, the humor is broad, and really, there’s not much about it that would likely offend people. The violence is nothing worse than what you’d see in an MCU movie, and even if there’s a good deal of swearing, it’s all for comedic purposes, and not exactly shocking. As for the drug use? Well, Charlie Chaplin had a scene in 1936’s Modern Times where his character accidentally inhaled a bunch of “nose powder” and reacted accordingly… and that movie is rated G.
A documentary that covers the difficult subject of bullying, 2011’s Bully is not an easy watch. It doesn’t shy away from the destructive effects that bullying at school can have on students who are victimized by it, with some distressing content, interviews, and some associated bad language being present in the film.
Without the topic being bullying, an R-rating would be understandable. However, given it sheds light on how dangerous bullying can be, there’s a strong argument to be made that those under 17 should see it. Thankfully, the MPAA did re-rate the film to PG-13 from its original R-rating for these reasons.
‘She Said’ (2022)
A biographical movie about the journalists who broke the 2017 story about Harvey Weinstein which helped kickstart the #MeToo Movement, She Said tells a difficult but important story. It dramatizes a still recent event that ended up being perhaps the most influential entertainment industry-related news story of the decade.
Still, the fact it has an R-rating does restrict its audience somewhat, even if this is a story that should be told to a wide audience. There is profanity and talk of distressing subject matter in the film, but it serves a purpose and keeps the story itself authentic. It’s a case where context should be considered more when judging the “offensiveness” of profane language.
‘The King’s Speech’ (2010)
Few R-ratings are more baffling than the one given to the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech. The movie follows King George VI and the way he overcame his speech impediment, largely thanks to some interesting techniques suggested by his speech therapist.
One such technique is the sole reason The King’s Speech received an R-rating. King George VI is encouraged to yell and swear, as part of his therapy, to be forceful, more confident, and to overcome certain anxieties around his speaking. It’s a memorable and funny scene, and essential for his character. If swear words are being used for such story and character purposes, can they really be that harmful to hear?