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Strange Things That Can Earn A Movie An R Rating

Ever since 1930, the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) has made the overall ruling on what's appropriate and what's unacceptable in film, ultimately making the call on what audiences are allowed to see in most wide releases. From the kid-friendly G all the way to the big bad NC-17, ratings play an important part in a film's performance, as most moviegoers check out a film's rating before they decide whether or not they're going to purchase a ticket. For that reason alone, the MPAA holds plenty of sway over how much money a movie makes and who has access to what, giving them the final say on a film's success.

However, the reasons that a film might earn an R rating can often be unexpected, and directors are sometimes a bit peeved by this literal restriction, especially when the MPAA cites an incredibly bizarre cause. From joints to jump scares, here are some of the strangest things that could earn a film an R rating.

It's Complicated went up in smoke

In the wake of Nora Ephron, Nancy Meyers became one of the biggest names in romantic comedy, creating picture perfect worlds with bantering couples, smoldering tension, and of course, ridiculously beautiful houses and kitchens. A perfect example of Meyers' style can be found in It's Complicated, her 2009 outing starring huge names like Meryl Streep, Steve Martin, Alec Baldwin, and John Krasinski. Focusing on a love triangle between Jane (Streep), her ex-husband Jake (Baldwin), and her new love interest Adam (Martin), this lighthearted yet deep movie is perfectly entertaining, making the most of its sharp script and uber-talented cast.

However, this easygoing movie somehow ended up with the same rating as a super violent and vulgar film thanks to one small aspect. During one scene, Jane and Adam smoke a joint before a dinner party, and the two end up having a fabulous time (which deeply confuses Jane's kids and the other guests). Unbelievably, the film got slammed with an R rating over this simple (and funny) scene, entirely because Jane and Adam smoke marijuana without any negative consequences. Giving a romantic comedy about baby boomers such a strict rating is pretty ridiculous, especially for such a puritanical reason.

The Revenant had a very specific kind of violence

Fresh off of Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), which netted him both Best Director and Best Picture Oscars at the 87th Academy Awards, Alejandro González Iñárritu took on yet another super-ambitious project with The Revenant in 2015. Besides giving Leonardo DiCaprio the role that would finally win him his long-awaited Oscar, Iñárritu took great pains to shoot the film exactly the way he wanted, using only natural light in pastoral, quiet locales to tell the story of abandoned frontiersman Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), whose team leaves him behind after he's brutally attacked by a bear. Eventually, Glass fights his way through the wilderness and gets revenge on his crew, but his harrowing journey — which includes eating raw bison liver and climbing inside of a dead horse for warmth — is definitely difficult to watch.

Apparently, the MPAA thought so, too, because their reasoning behind The Revenant's R rating was undeniably bizarre. Certainly, the movie was violent and often fairly disgusting — it contains profanity, assault, and other disturbing issues — but the official rating says the film earned an R for "strong frontier combat and violence." That's pretty specific, so maybe Iñárritu should be credited with creating a brand new way to push the MPAA into a harsher rating.

The F-word will get your movie an R rating

When you think of successful movies than earn R ratings, you probably think of super violent and boundary-pushing films like the Saw franchise or bawdy comedies like The Hangover, as opposed to biopics and quiet, introspective musicals. However, thanks to seemingly minimal profanity, incredibly tame films often end up with R ratings.

Two perfect examples are The King's Speech and Once, which were released in 2010 and 2007, respectively. The former tells the story of King George VI (played by an Oscar-winning Colin Firth), who struggles with a debilitating stutter that he can only manage with the help of his vocal coach, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). As for Once, it's a beautifully performed musical set in Dublin about two struggling street singers. The film ended up winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song ("Falling Slowly"), and in the aftermath of that success, it was adapted into a Broadway musical that won a whopping eight Tony Awards. However, both of these films had more than one F-word in them, which automatically gives a film an R rating. This might seem pretty ridiculous, and maybe it is, but both The King's Speech and Once officially share a rating with some of Hollywood's bloodiest and most offensive films.

Rushmore definitely deserves a PG-13

The movie that put Wes Anderson on the map was apparently quite risqué, according to the MPAA. Rushmore shines the spotlight on the teenage Max Fischer (played by Jason Schwartzman in a breakout role), a precocious student who loves forming clubs and hanging out with the eccentric Herman Blume (Bill Murray). Aside from making Schwartzman and Anderson names to watch, the film re-established Murray by helping him move away from pure slapstick and into a more serious acting career.

However, a movie about a teenager figuring out how to navigate the tricky last few years before adulthood was totally inaccessible to teens under 17, as Rushmore earned an R rating thanks to a brief scene involving some pretty inoffensive centerfolds. This kind of stuff might've been crossing the line back in 1998, but as the film ages, its rating is one of the only things that feels dated.

Brokeback Mountain's story was deemed too risque

Featuring a critically acclaimed cast led by Heath Ledger in one of his final performances, Ang Lee's romantic masterpiece Brokeback Mountain tells the story of two men who maintain a decades-long relationship during their time spent herding sheep on one specific mountain. Ledger and his co-star, Jake Gyllenhaal — alongside Michelle Williams and Anne Hathaway (their on-screen wives) — portray a heart-wrenching and ultimately doomed love, considering that during the film's time period, the two can't be together in any real way. The film netted Oscar nods for Best Picture and Best Actor for Ledger (who even met his real-life partner, Williams, on set), but it also ended up with a pretty harsh rating, all things considered.

With only one intimate scene between the two men, it seems ridiculous that Brokeback was slapped with a restrictive R rating, causing plenty of debate about whether the film really merited such a tough rating ... or whether it should've even gone beyond an R. Some more conservative critics went so far as to say that the film should've gotten an NC-17, but luckily, it stuck to an R, despite its tasteful and often chaste depiction of a tragic, same-sex love story.

Philomena fights her way to PG-13

You might not think a quiet, contemplative movie starring Dame Judi Dench would even come close to an R rating, but apparently, Philomena was edgier than expected. As the titular character, Dench embarks on a journey with journalist Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan) to try and find the child that she was forced to abandon as a young woman. Ultimately and tragically, she finds a horrible answer to her lingering question, discovering that her son hid his sexuality and died from complications related to AIDS, making him an outcast in the conservative 1990s.

Shockingly, this awards-season darling ended up with an R rating upon its release, but the filmmakers wouldn't let that stand. After its initial release in 2013 netted a particularly restrictive rating over multiple instances of "the F word," now-disgraced studio executive Harvey Weinstein stood up for the film, arguing the rating should be dialed back to a much more accessible (and appropriate) PG-13. Actor Steve Coogan also argued against the rating, saying the profanity was portrayed in a negative light, providing a stark contrast between his and Dench's characters. Once upon a time, Weinstein wielded a formidable amount of power, and the MPAA caved pretty quickly, reducing Philomena's rating just in time for the Oscar nominations.

Mother's Boys mother was a little much

Jamie Lee Curtis became one of the biggest scream queens in horror history with Halloween, and she continued her trend of creepy films with 1994's Mother's Boys, a thriller starring Curtis alongside Academy Award-winner Vanessa Redgrave and Peter Gallagher (The O.C.). In the film, Jude Madigan (Curtis), a wife and mother of three boys, suddenly leaves her family behind, only to return and cause problems with her estranged husband (Gallagher), his new girlfriend, and of course, the children. In order to win her family back, she turns her eldest son against his father and his father's girlfriend. Plus, she acts in horrifying and erratic fashion throughout the entire film.

The movie is pretty intense, but the reason for its R rating is definitely a weird one. According to the MPAA, one of the reasons the film earned such a strict rating was because of "a mother's sociopathic behavior." Sociopaths are pretty par for the course in entertainment, but apparently, as far as the MPAA was concerned, Curtis' performance and character just took everything too far.

Eighth Grade isn't for kids anymore

A movie about eighth-graders seems like it should be accessible to kids, but according to the MPAA, 2018's Eighth Grade was for adults only. Directed and written by comedian Bo Burnham and starring teenager Elsie Fisher, the film covers the last week of eighth grade before Kayla Day (Fisher) graduates from middle school and moves into high school. As she struggles with social anxiety, she produces YouTube videos to try and cope, while also overcoming crushes and trying to make friends despite being voted "Most Quiet." However, as she moves towards high school, she gains the confidence she sorely lacked, making friends and connecting more with her single father, Mark (Josh Hamilton).

When it was announced that a movie about kids (and one that could potentially help kids who suffered from anxiety) had earned an R rating for some profanity and a minor amount of sexual content, Burnham was given the chance to edit his debut into a PG-13 cut. However, he refused, saying it wouldn't be true to the spirit of the film (encouraging teens to "sneak in" to theaters while he was at it). Even though A24, the studio that produced the film, never appealed the R rating, it ended up kind of getting around the issue by arranging free, unrated screenings across the country, so eighth-graders who identified with the film could score the chance to see it in theaters.  

The Avengers crossed a line and almost earned an R rating

One of the earliest outings in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Joss Whedon's first Avengers film brought the MCU's signature humor, whimsy, and irreverence to a scale audiences hadn't yet seen by uniting a band of heroes — Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) — to defend New York against a band of invading aliens, all while protecting the Tesseract and fighting Thor's insidious brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

Marvel films are typically meant for the whole family, dispensing with profanity, nudity, or inappropriate sexual overtones, so it might shock you to learn that the original cut of The Avengers earned an R rating from the MPAA thanks to one very specific scene. When Loki kills Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) with an enormous spear, the MPAA objected to just how violent the scene got, considering that Coulson gets impaled with a huge knife sticking out through his chest. Once Whedon edited the scene for the theatrical release and didn't show the actual stabbing, the film secured a PG-13 rating. Believe it or not, some countries went so far as to digitally remove the staff entirely, proving that maybe, for Marvel, this scene crossed some serious lines.

Paranormal Activity's scares aren't the problem

Following in the footsteps of found footage horror classics like The Blair Witch Project, the first Paranormal Activity was released in 2007 and quickly became a huge hit, earning nearly $200 million against a budget of $15,000. Framed as a real story, the film shows a couple who sets up cameras in their home after suspecting some supernatural activity, chronicling all of the terrifying events that do end up taking place while they sleep.

Also like The Blair Witch Project, this unsettling and disturbing film earned an R rating not for its frightening imagery or spooky story but "language," which feels like a pretty ridiculous way to say that both of these movies would keep younger viewers awake for weeks. Later, the MPAA decided to be a bit more honest (but still weird) and gave The Conjuring, another deeply frightening paranormal film, an R for "terror" along with violence. Of course, the MPAA's inconsistent ratings for horror films — especially considering that screamers like Poltergeist still carry a PG — are sure to confuse filmgoers for years to come.

Snakes on a Plane tried especially hard to score that R rating

Samuel L. Jackson's absurd campfest Snakes on a Plane might have one of the best movie catchphrases of all time, but it's also a rare film that fought to be edgier and more restricted than it was to begin with. The film itself needs little explanation: Jackson's character ends up on a plane infested with snakes, and obviously, chaos ensues, with some pretty hilarious results.

However, after the first cut of the film, it became clear to both director David R. Ellis and Jackson that they could really amp up the inappropriate stuff in the film — which they initially deemed a too gentle — to earn the R rating. So they added more violence, more profanity, and more MPAA bait so the film would eventually get bumped up to an R. The creative team wasn't particularly worried about the box office draw of the film (particularly after the recent success of R-rated comedies like Wedding Crashers), and while the movie didn't set the box office on fire, the edgy action flick managed to double its budget before fading from theaters.