Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Death of The Death of The Death of Film Criticism

Perhaps it’s my general crabbiness but I find myself increasingly annoyed at the horrible quality of most film review writing. To be specific, my annoyance has to do with the fact that it has become increasingly difficult to point students to good examples of popular film writing that offers some analysis and reflects some understanding of film history. (There are a few left to be sure.) In a recent salon article about how film critics excessively bemoan the death of film criticism, Andrew O’ Hehir unintentionally reveals what I hate about most film critics. Here is the article.

I am particularly interested in the passage:

“But reviewing movies is a lot more like performing stand-up comedy than like delivering a philosophy lecture. None of those grand ideas even begin to matter if you're boring and you can't write.”

Aside from the facile oppositions—that you can’t do stand up and philosophy at the same time— O’Hehir’s attitude that being entertaining (not being boring!) is the essential requirement of film criticism is troublesome. And since apparently philosophy lectures can’t be entertaining, what happens with critics who buy into this belief is that actually saying anything about a film, or interpreting it, becomes a strictly secondary concern.

Consider this review of Hot Tub Time Machine by critic Christopher Kelly, who I picked since his name can be found in the comments section of the article praising O’Hehir

'Hot Tub Time Machine' not a lot of fun
'Hot Tub Time Machine' goes back to the future and sends humanity down the drain.

By Christopher Kelly

Hot Tub Time Machine doesn't have much in the way of plot or characters. It barely has a concept. What it does have is a title so dumb that it sounds like one of those fake movies you see advertised between skits on Saturday Night Live. Except this is a real movie. About a hot tub. That also functions as a time machine. It even stars real actors (or at least one, John Cusack, surrounded by character players no doubt happy to collect a Hollywood-size paycheck). Mewonders if H.G. Wells is spinning in his grave.
The problem is that, once the semi-amusing buzz of the title wears off (i.e., once you've seen the trailer), there's little left to hang your hat on here. Hot Tub Time Machine winks and nods at any number of '80s movies, from time-travel comedies like Back to the Future and Peggy Sue Got Married to teen sex romps like Hot Dog: The Movie and Revenge of the Nerds. But it does so much winking that it never develops a personality of its own. Nor is it especially funny. When the first two gags involve excrement -- a set of keys swallowed by a dog and an exploding hospital tube filled with urine -- you know you're in trouble.
There isn't much of a plot to summarize, but here goes: Adam (John Cusack), Lou (Rob Corddry) and Nick (Craig Robinson) were once close friends, now going through some tough times. Adam's wife has just left him. Lou ended up in the hospital after what might have been a suicide attempt. Nick fears his wife is cheating on him. With Adam's nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) in tow, they take a weekend trip to a ski lodge where they spent many memorable weekends. They step inside the hot tub and -- shazam! -- it's 1986, complete with neon colors, bad perms and repeated references to Miami Vice.
With its mixture of bare boobs and easy sentimentality, Hot Tub Time Machine is kind of cinematic comfort food for male moviegoers of a certain age: Wasn't life so much easier, it asks, when Poison was the biggest band on the radio (the glam rockers make a cameo), and when the possibilities for the future seemed limitless? But as the men wander through the ski lodge trying not to screw with the space-time continuum, the movie never develops a core of either sweetness or humanity, à la such men-behaving-crudely classics as There's Something About Mary or American Pie. Hot Tub Time Machine -- directed by Steve Pink and written by Josh Heald, Sean Anders and John Morris -- just feels like a cynical attempt to cash in on the same crowd that propelled The Hangover to blockbuster success.
Corddry and Robinson at least appear to be having a good time (there's a witty gag involving a sure-fire bet on a football game that goes awry), but Cusack is charmless and petulant, wearing a fixed expression that suggests he is really annoyed with his agent for booking him in this movie. As the mysterious hot-tub repairman, Chevy Chase putters around the edges of the story -- I'm guessing whatever part he might have once had was left on the cutting-room floor. The primary bright spot is the wonderfully weird Crispin Glover, who plays a guy on the verge of dismemberment with uncommon good cheer. He seems to be in on his own private joke -- one much funnier than anything in this movie.

While the review isn’t terribly written, it has nothing really to say about the film. When it does Kelly explicitly misinterprets the film, by explicitly I mean the film actually has characters spell out their lesson about traveling back in time; in other words, the men in the film realize that they weren’t happier in the past and the 80’s doesn’t live up to their nostalgia. Misinterpretation aside, why is this review littered with so much snark? What is actually said in the first paragraph? Is this what counts as being entertaining? Sadly, there was a time when critics would actually take movies like Hot Tub Time Machine, or B movies, seriously and actually wrestled with saying something about them rather than simply offering a belabored opinion that is supposed to be entertaining. Bring back the head of Manny Farber Futurama style!

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