Director Darren Aronofsky has generally had pretty good luck with critics. And why not? He makes fabulous films; he’s certainly got a fan in me. His first five directorial efforts averaged an 80% on Rotten Tomatoes — and the only one that doesn’t have a “fresh” rating on the site is his divisive 2005 feature “The Fountain.” Divisive may be putting it mildly, too. “The Fountain”‘s Rotten Tomatoes score? 51%. Mathematically, it doesn’t get much more divisive than that.
“The Fountain” was a long and difficult production for Aronofsky; he spent years developing the film with Brad Pitt, who left the project less than two months before shooting was scheduled to begin. The film was cancelled then resurrected a few years later with half its original budget and Hugh Jackman in the role previously intended for Pitt. Reviews were as mixed as they could possibly be and the film wound up grossing only $15.9 million worldwide.
Aronofsky eventually rebounded with his biggest successes to date: “The Wrestler” with Mickey Rourke and “Black Swan” with Natalie Portman. Now he’s working on a massive version of the Bible story of Noah. But the failure of “The Fountain,” a passion project if ever there was one, clearly still stings, and in an interview this week with Bullett Magazine from the Marrakesh International Film Festival, Aronofsky talked about the thing that sent the whole effort into a “tailspin:” “The Fountain”‘s negative review in Variety, written by film critic Leslie Felperin.
Calling Felperin “a very unromantic writer” — and noting that he “shouldn’t talk bad about her” — here’s how he assessed her “Fountain” review:
“Not only did she attack the film, she attacked me. People in social media attack you for everything you’ve done, that happens all the time. But a critic should be focused on what’s at hand, not attack someone’s career and say their past films are overrated and say they have no ability. She clearly had an issue with me as a person and what I was putting out there as my stories. So that bothered me. And so probably if I ever met her, it wouldn’t be a good day.”
Obviously, I immediately located and read Felperin’s review. The stuff that’s specifically about Aronofsky is all in the piece’s second paragraph:
“Overpraised for the then-hip, now-dated use of pseudo-science in ‘Pi,’ and for the visual excess he deployed in the grungy ‘Requiem,’ helmer Aronofsky has been attached to and then detached from various big-budget studio projects over the last few years, including ‘Batman Begins’ and ‘The Watchman.’ ‘The Fountain,’ written by Aronofsky and based on a story by him and Ari Handel, shows onscreen all the wear and tear of a personal project that has suffered from production fits and starts and reportedly has been cut down from a longer running time to a still tedious and repetitious hour and a half.”
Is Aronofsky correct that Felperin called him overrated? Basically, yes. Is he also correct that a critic “should be focused on what’s at hand, not attack someone’s career?” That’s a little murkier. I’m not interested in reading a critic who takes cheap shots, but I don’t think a director’s past work should be off the table for discussion either. Placing a new movie in context with previous ones by the same filmmaker is part of what good criticism does. If a critic thinks that filmmaker is overrated, they’ve got a right, at least in my eyes, to make their case.
Then again, if a critic does think a filmmaker is consistently overrated, maybe they’re not the best person to assess their latest work. There are directors I’m not too fond of myself, and when those assignments get pitched to me, I generally beg off and let other freelancers pick them up. Not every critic “gets” every filmmaker.