Though Charles Passy’s recent underthought diatribe against film critics at MarketWatch (which already prompted a response from Criticwire‘s Matt Singer) was the most widely noted such piece of the year so far, it’s really just the umpteenth rote variation of a routinely deployed formula. While not quite as pervasive as your standard cute animal list, it’s still invariably due for an appearance two or three times a month across the media landscape.
I searched for some recent examples that hadn’t received as much attention and struck gold with Forbes blogger John Tamny’s petulantly titled “Matthew McConaughey’s Very Pedestrian ‘Mud’: Why Do Film Critics Love It So Much?” Tamny’s bio states he covers “the intersection of economics and politics,” though sometimes he drags movies into the equation. Two of his equally odd recent posts use quotes from director William Friedkin’s recent memoir “The Friedkin Connection” to argue, among other things, that for the Republican party “the ‘Party of the Rich’ label is an aspirational one. It’s a good brand.”
There aren’t any politics in his notes on “Mud.” The first paragraphs deride McConaughey’s range, cite two critics who liked the film by name (Joe Morganstern of the Wall Street Journal and Lou Lumenick of the New York Post) and note that it had a 98% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes (in the month since, it’s risen to 99%). “It should be stressed up front that critics know their stuff, their reviews surely inform my film choices,” Tamny states while concluding his introductory case, “but in this case it’s worth asking if they watched the same average, and full of holes movie that I did.”
What follow are no less than fifteen paragraphs of straight synopsis that almost serve as a textbook example of why experienced, concise criticism is helpful, pausing only to note apparent plot holes and implausibilities large and small (“Mud describes Juniper in glowing terms, including her long legs which, for anyone who’s ever seen [Reese] Witherspoon in person, knows do not exist. Couldn’t they have at least altered the script slightly with Witherspoon’s diminutive stature in mind?”). In the last paragraph, Tamny reiterates his complaint about “the same old McConaughey mailing in the persona he’s invented for himself,” concluding by generously noting that “if my objections can be credibly answered, I’ll go see it again.” Some comment section wrangling rounds it out (“If the analysis is off as is presumed, the request within the analysis was for an explanation”).
While Tamny is angry that critics loved something too much, Huffington Post contributor Brian Ross is upset on behalf of “Now You See Me” for the opposite reason. According to his bio, Ross is “the pioneering ezine editor of the first sports ezine” and is now the managing editor of this site, which seems to specialize in righteously angry liberal op-eds. Though differing from Tamny in his politics and bone being picked, Ross too turns to Rotten Tomatoes to lay out his case: “Why is it that this movie generates 75 percent or better favorables with fans, but a dismal 44 percent of the critics giving it a thumbs up?”
To describe how this “movie about magic and the magic of pissing off critics” works, Ross argues that its many twists make for “a taut hybrid bank heist/magic thriller with enough consistent details, chop-saki [sic] action sequences, a little romance and genuine laughs to please a wide, wide audience.” While critics sit annoyingly nitpicking at “the parts of the movie about which they can speak without being spoilers,” audiences see the film as successful because “talking about what is real in the film would completely spoil it” (presumably meaning that critics saw the whole movie, but in only being allowed to talk about part of it reduced their understanding of the film to that section, ending up sounding like outfoxed idiots). Stretching further, Ross argues that the film’s box office success will make audiences themselves feel good for sharing in “comeuppance to all the smarty pants, on-screen and on, who are non-believers.” It’s hard to believe that late capitalism’s come so far that audiences will feel that their enriching a Hollywood production counts as collaboratively sticking it to the pointy, eggheaded man.
One can also denounce criticism from inside, as Todd Hill recently did for Ohio’s Coshocton Tribune. His argument, broadly, is that “could learn a thing or two from the ordinary movie-going public” about “becoming accustomed to a filmmaker’s work.” That’s because said public doesn’t “put nearly as much thought into watching a motion picture,” which turns out to be a good thing.
As proof, he cites a young guy who walked out of his 2007 movie of the year “There Will Be Blood” after 15 minutes (saying it was “too weird”) and that after 15 similarly strange minutes of P.T. Anderson’s follow-up “The Master,” he concluded “that that young man talking on his cellphone was on to the increasingly inscrutability of P.T. Anderson’s filmography long before I was.” That’s too bad, because the goal of criticism is “identifying a motion picture’s flaws, which should be done in the interest of informing filmmakers of what they could improve on next time.” From objective grievance to anti-elitist rant to this kind of mild acquiescence to the common sense of the least demanding audience members, there’s no lack of incoherent angles to take for this evergreen attack piece.