In these times of danger as well as moral and economic turbulence, going to the movies is a very appealing distraction. Because of the number of movies in distribution and their short life span, the average member of the audience does not have much time to form a decision as to what to see.
The decision will either be based on the influence of advertisements, movie reviews or recommendations from trusted acquaintances. I distrust advertisements because I do not want to be seduced into seeing a movie because a deep-pocketed distributor has decided to spend a lot of money to try to influence me. However, I can rely less and less on critics, so I am relegated to be guided by the recommendations of friends whose taste I trust, or at least whose taste is generally similar to mine.
The disconnect between critics and audiences becomes problematic because I have to rely on the few trusted friends who had the time to see those movies that would most appeal to me before their two- or three-week theatrical lifespan has elapsed.
I can rely less and less on reviews. It must be very hard for film critics, who see so many movies, not to be jaded, especially during the sequel-filled summer. It must be hard for them to bridge the gap between them and the audience. I am not suggesting that film critics be dumbed down to the level of an 11-year-old boy. On the other hand, many have lost the ability to review a movie within its own class.
It is unfair to compare “Bringing Down the House” with an Ingmar Bergman or a Federico Fellini movie, but it is enormously amusing and entertaining in its own milieu, as shown by its acceptance by the public (and in this case, the public is not just pre-adolescent boys, but people in all economic cultures and age strata). Yet most critics damned it.
I don’t want to read a review from a critic who is just looking for something quotable to be printed, or something malevolently clever to say at the expense of the filmmaker. I don’t want a reviewer to criticize a movie because of fear that the movie is politically inappropriate. Some years ago, comedian Stan Freberg was complaining that since everyone was so overly sensitive, it was no longer safe to make jokes about anyone except Swiss people; since there were so few of them, it didn’t matter so much if one offended them. However, he found it very hard to make funny jokes about Swiss people!
Turning again to “Bringing Down the House,” the movie was unfairly criticized out of fear that its acceptance by the critic might bring the critic into disrepute for being a bigot — even though the movie is extremely good-natured and an African-American (Queen Latifah) is an executive producer and star!
It is as hard to find a reliable film critic as it is to find a reliable food critic. If I want to know where I can get a good lasagna, I don’t want a restaurant’s lasagna to be compared to cow cheek infused with rose petal essence.
I was raised in Europe, which, while having a longer cultural history, also has a longer history of bad criticism. For instance, there was the music reviewer who, upon hearing Tschaikovsky’s piano concerto, wrote: “I never thought I could hear music that stinks to the ear.” So the problem with critics is neither new nor peculiar to the United States.
I miss the objective criticism of someone like Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times. But now that he has retired, where do I find a film critic without his own individual agenda and his own point of view — unless, of course, it agrees with mine?
(Eric Weissman is a partner in the law firm Weissman, Wolff, Bergman, Coleman, Grodin & Evall.)