Should Critics Simply Not Review Some Movies?

In response to New York Times restaurant critic, Pete Wells' review of Guy Fieri's new restaurant Guy's American Kitchen & Bar, Margaret Sullivan has now written a piece taking a look at the culture of negative reviews and Times' culture editor Jonathan Landman's idea they shouldn't happen often.

Wells' negative review was spoofed in an online exclusive "Saturday Night Live" skit and quickly became viral. In response to the review, Fieri blamed the messenger saying, "It's a great way to make a name for yourself -- go after a celebrity chef who is not a New Yorker."

I've never eaten at any of Fieri's restaurants, but to read Wells' description of Guy's American Kitchen & Bar it sounds like a Red Robin crossed with a T.G.I. Friday's. I'm not sure if that's accurate, but when Sullivan turns to Times lead critic Manhola Dargis for her opinion on judging cinema her response seems accurate enough when describing most any product and/or service out there. "Most movies are middling," she said. "They're fine, but they're not transporting you."

Sullivan then adds the following:

When the subject is vulnerable, one solution may be to not review at all. But sometimes that's not practical. The Times can pass on reviewing, for example, an independent filmmaker's fledgling effort or an art exhibit in a small gallery, but it is committed to reviewing major concerts, films and theater productions, whatever their quality.

Is it ever really acceptable for criticism to be so over the top, considering that there are human beings behind every venture? I think it is. That kind of brutal honesty is sometimes necessary. If it is entertaining, all the better. The exuberant pan should be an arrow in the critic's quiver, but reached for only rarely.

First, to Dargis' point I agree wholeheartedly. Most movies are barely above average, if that. I hate grading movies because it means very little, but something around a "C+" is a common grade for me as most films really excel when you consider the library of cinema they are contributing to.

But what about this idea of not reviewing a movie because the subject may be vulnerable? I have a hard time figuring out why Sullivan would add it to her editorial if she is so quick to dismiss it, but I'm thankful she does dismiss it. I've never not reviewed a movie because I felt a need to be sensitive, but there is a larger issue, What is the target of the critics' negativity?

I do my very best to ensure I don't attack the people involved in a film, but aim at the film itself, its problems and the work done in said film. Of course, sometimes I break my own rules and I suggest a director should be revoked of his/her director license such as I did in my review of Alex Cross.

To that point, there's a fine line between attacking someone and attacking their work. Some may believe the two aren't mutually exclusive, but in the instance of Alex Cross, perhaps I should have been a little more sensitive.

Sullivan's suggestion, however, is the "exuberant pan" should only be used rarely, which is also an interesting idea. I wonder why she believes disdain for something should only be reserved for special occasions. Does that not single out the target even more? If the idea is to review something honestly how is one to judge when it's appropriate and when it's not to really let loose?

I don't hand out "F" grades all that often as it is, and looking through my archives of "F" reviews it looks like 3-4 films get such distinction each year. But also looking through those reviews I notice one of my favorite negative reviews wasn't even for a movie I was giving an "F".

I gave New Year's Eve a "D" and enjoyed peppering it with the lyrics from Pink's "Raise Your Glass". Strangely, giving a higher grade to a movie everyone else has panned can have an interesting effect on commenters. Several commenters got mad at me for not giving Sex and the City 2 a lower grade even though my review says essentially the same thing as every pan out there, I simply found the terribleness of it all rather entertaining. Then there are commenting threads such as the one under my Sucker Punch review that speak for themselves.

Getting back to the point, I reject the idea a critic should review a film negatively only rarely. Perhaps that's a good rule for critics who only see black and white, live by the RottenTomatoes idea of "Rotten vs. Fresh" or rely solely on hyperbole in which a film is either a "Magnificent roller coaster ride" or "Reeks of a toilet gone two weeks unflushed". But for those that manage nuance and honesty in their opinions there is no reason to hold back. If what comes out is a film review set to a pop song or one offered up in Seussian rhyme, whatever best gets across an opinion is what should be printed.

  • Winchester

    I tend to agree with the 'brutal honesty' part of the quote personally and when it comes to a film review if you think it then write it. I rarely see reviews from reputable sources that get that bad, but online amongst internet sites it does.

    No-one will always agree with you, and I fully understand that even the worst films represent people's efforts (people who, I may add may not always be unaware they are working on a stinker) but it depends who you feel is responsible. At the end of the day a film's biggest problems will usually come down to script, performances or the direction and the choices made therein. Criticism is fair comment in these respects I think.

    And just because these folks work in the industry doesn't mean they are good at it. Therefore, bluntness sometimes is needed. It will inevitably lead to discussion/argument when people disagree on that kind bluntness being needed but I don't think you can avoid that when everyone has their own ideas of 'good' and 'bad'.

    Of course, I say that being guilty of sometimes quite enjoying being harsh about a film. The main and accurate point that the vast majority of films are the equivalent of just 'OK' (which I should say in connection to the 2015 thread applies to the entire spectrum of cinema) doesn't preclude the enjoyment that can come from venting on something particularly bad.

  • marlonwallace

    In yesterday's post of the video of THR's Roundtable with this year's possible Oscar-nominated directors, David O'Russell says something to the effect that he doesn't read reviews and I think implies that no director should. I think this is the green light for critics to be as brutal as they want because often those artists aren't reading the critics. When Tyler Perry was on Oprah, he said he stopped reading reviews, so I'm sure he hasn't read Brad's 'Alex Cross' review. Tom Hooper also in that Roundtable said that his family are his harshest critics and that he had someone give him a harsh criticism that made him have to change the sound mix to 'Les Miserables' just days before he was supposed to turn it in, so again harsh criticism was helpful. point being i agree with Brad in his last paragraph.

  • Timothy

    It depends. If you are bashing a film if it is really bad, then it is important to at least give some warning. What I do believe is the best way to criticize is by taking critics and audiences input, in order to come up with an overall overview of the general criticism's, kind of like IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes combined. That way everyone gets to input some kind of opinion. There is always someone who will like a movie, no matter how bad, and there is always someone who will hate a movie.

    For me, the hard part of writing reviews is if you find a film that you really have no opinion on, it isn't a great film nor a bad film, you're kind of just indifferent.

    • Bren

      I agree with your last line. It's very hard to write about a film that doesn't really move me in either a good or bad way. But I guess that's what separates good reviewers from the bad. Being able to articulate why something was meh is a tough task.

  • Scott

    Reviews are entertainment of themselves. I've enjoyed well-written reviews, positive or negative, for movies that I never even saw. (And yes, the harsh reviews are usually the most fun.) If only there was a German word to express that feeling, I could better express it.