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A Critic’s Dilemma

A Critic's Dilemma

(For the purposes of this post only, please pay attention to the man behind the curtain.)

Later today I’ve got to write a review of the new film “2 Days in New York,” which is now available on VOD and iTunes and opening Friday in limited release. Overall, I enjoyed the film and I feel very clear about what did and didn’t work. But I’m wrestling with something and I’m not sure what to do. Here’s the problem: describing my favorite part of the movie would almost certainly make you want to see it, but it also might compromise your experience if you do.

The film is about a couple, Marion (co-writer/director Julie Delpy) and Mingus (Chris Rock), whose relationship is tested when Marion’s overbearing family comes from France for a visit. That’s the A plot; the B plot involves Marion preparing for a gallery show of her photographs where she also plans to auction off her soul to the highest bidder. Both plots converge on opening night at the gallery, which serves as the climax of the film.

Then… well, then there’s a scene. A scene that completely surprised me. It made me laugh once out of shock, and then several more times thanks to the quality of the writing and acting. It might be the best scene in the movie; it’s certainly the most memorable. After spending all of “2 Days in New York” on the fence, this scene definitively won me over. 

By any definition, mentioning this scene isn’t technically a spoiler. It doesn’t really affect Marion and Mingus’ relationship, or Marion’s relationship to her family, or the outcome of the gallery opening — and even if it did, “2 Days in New York” is not exactly a movie about complex plot machinations that must be left to the viewer to discover on their own. Looking online, it appears that a fair percentage of my colleagues had no qualms about citing the scene in question; it’s mentioned in a bunch of other reviews of the movie. But part of why I loved this moment was the degree to which it blindsided me, and talking about it — even like this, I guess — could diminish that surprise.

Being a film critic is not a tough job — not in the way that, say, being a NASA aerospace engineer or a port-o-potty repair man is difficult — but this is one of the tough parts of the job. I’ve got to tell you what I saw and what I think, without telling you too much about either. I’ve got to be as specific as possible, without being so specific that you feel like you’ve already seen the movie, or so vague that you don’t have a sense of what it’s like or about. Ironically, if the film was terrible or the sequence didn’t work, it would be easier to discuss, because I’d feel less guilty about giving it away. The fact that I dug it so much makes things trickier; I feel more of a responsibility about preserving the surprise. 

So what do I do? I did like the movie, so I will probably tell people “2 Days in New York” includes a great scene that I don’t want to discuss, and hope my readers trust me. But that feels like a bit of a cop out. The thing that makes me enthusiastic is the same thing I can’t mention. I have to make up my mind soon, but I could easily spend a lot longer than 2 days in New York debating this.

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Mike McGranaghan

I saw "2 Days in New York" last night, and I know exactly the scene you're referring to. I had the same reaction to it myself. When I write my review later today, I'm not going to give the scene away, but I am going to mention that something really special happens. It's been my experience that readers grow more intrigued by a film – and are more likely to seek it out – when they know something unexpectedly cool occurs. They don't necessarily need to know what specifically happens, just that they'll be blown away when they see it. That critical approach has worked on me too; I've made a point to see certain films because of vague talk about a gutsy plot twist or knock-your-socks-off scene. A lot of times, the "tease" in a review turns the film into a draw.


Mr. Singer,
I applaud your restraint. I am not a critic, merely a film enthusiast. But long ago, I stopped reading reviews BEFORE I saw a film because too often I found film critics would spoil the movie in their discussion of plot. It was actually a review of FIGHT CLUB that turned me off of reviews. Yes – the critic stated explicitly the spoiler of that film. I was crushed. I had been anticipating the film for months and my experience of the film was completely compromised by this blabber mouth. It seemed to me that the critic in question and, unfortunately, many critics willfully sabotage the filmgoers' experience of the movies with their reviews. To me, it's like those critics violate an unspoken trust to critique the film without destroying my opportunity to experience the film as the filmmaker intended. You are clearly not such a critic. You have won a new fan.


I think this is a subset of a larger issue, and it's one I struggle with sometimes when writing reviews. The issue is a simple question of purpose: is this purely criticism, purely advisory, or somewhere in between? If it's only serving as criticism then of course you share what you need to share to fully examine the work. If it's purely advisory then you minimize the sharing in order to maximize the payoff… though you need to share as much as is necessary to make a compelling argument.

I don't know that anyone can answer the question for you. You presumably know what your audience is seeking in your work. Are you their gatekeeper? Is that your goal? In my writing I have to accept that I am interested in serving this purpose to a small extent – I want to promote theater I think is good and I am mindful of the high cost in both time and money that going to a show represents for my audience.

If I'm going to write with that in mind then I have to sacrifice some criticism for the sake of doing it well. In the case you describe I think I'd opt to say that the story shows quality by being able to deliver a surprise and laugh at unexpected times. Wanting to share that moment is understandable; why else would we choose to be writers if we didn't value that sharing? But we shouldn't indulge ourselves there if it subverts our purpose.

Sometimes you have to kill your darlings. In fiction that means not letting your characters skate without consequence. In essays it may mean not indulging our impulses to the detriment of our work's purpose.

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