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Why negative movie reviews really don’t matter

Posted on August 19th, 2011
Posted on August 19th, 2011

by Coop Cooper

Energized by the power and fantastic performances of “The Help,” this weekend I ventured online to see what my fellow American movie critics thought. The website Rottentomatoes.com averages the positive and negative reviews from critics of major print publications and assigns a percentage value. Anything under 60% is considered “rotten” and anything over that number is deemed “fresh.” While “The Help” gained a respectable 73% average, compared to the averages of “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” (76%), Captain America: The First Avenger” (79%) and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (82%), its average seemed rather low. Considering the film’s box office and awards potential, I wondered where most of the negativity was coming from.

As I explored the reviews, I found some cynical opinions that took me by surprise. I respect many of these naysaying critics (one of which is a Pulitzer Prize-winner I interviewed while in college), but I found myself disheartened at some of their reasons for bashing “The Help.” Since much of the American public has a tenuous relationship with film critics, I felt compelled to keep my colleagues honest and analyze some of their baffling responses…

  1. It reinforces negative stereotypes of African Americans.

My response: If that’s true then it also reinforces negative stereotypes of police officers, southern belles, poor white trash, independent liberal women and Mississippians in general. What about the stereotypes it shatters? Stereotypes rob dignity, yet these women fight for their dignity and win it. Perhaps the critics were uncomfortable with regional dialect and linguistic idioms, but as a resident of Mississippi, I found them surprisingly accurate and complimentary.

  1. It didn’t go far enough in its depictions of Southern racism in the 60’s.

My response: That’s strange, considering the other half of critics who wrote negative reviews felt like it went TOO far. Being predominantly white males in Northern and Western cities, it appears almost as if most of these critics didn’t know how to feel or what the perceived politically correct response should be in writing about these issues. They are aware that the film made them uncomfortable so rather than sound uninformed, they go off half-cocked.

  1. Like ‘The Blind Side,’ this salves white guilt…” Peter Keough, “The Boston Phoenix”

    It has an overmodest debutante’s aversion to any ugliness.” – Kimberley Jones, “Austin Chronicle”

My response: More mixed messages by critics trying really hard to sound tough about the issue. I rather like this one instead… “Is ‘The Help’ a condescending movie for white liberals? Actually, the real condescension is calling it that.” – Owen Gleiberman, “Entertainment Weekly”

  1. It “whitewashes” history by making a white person the savior of the helpless minorities who could not defend themselves.

This one irked me the most and I thought I had a really good response to it… Until I realized it sounded familiar. Here is a negative statement I wrote about the 2009 movie “Avatar”: “I’ve grown tired of seeing films where a strapping outsider comes to the rescue of proud-yet-desperate minorities from the injustices of his own people. It rarely rings true and usually ends up insulting the culture in a poor attempt at political correctness. It’s like saying these minorities can’t fend for themselves without the help of a savior from the majority, which I think is a really lousy message.”

Oops.

I learned a valuable lesson when I realized my hypocrisy. It’s not that I’m right and other critics are crazy or ignorant, it’s that sometimes critics simply need to shut up and tell us if they think the audience will like the movie. It also illustrates why there is often a deep disconnect between audiences and the critics. We (the critics) can be sanctimonious bores sometimes with our, “I am outraged because a college teacher told me these movies promote pro-imperialist sentiment!” or “Steven Spielberg pales in comparison to the 1920’s Russian Director Sergei Eisenstein!”

I’ll never like “Avatar” but I’ll continue to try keeping my know-it-all pretension in check. I recommend other critics try to do the same and no matter what they say, if YOU liked “The Help” don’t let anyone make you feel guilty about it. The critics may have only given it 73%, but the audience score on Rottentomatoes.com rated it 93%. In the end, your opinion is the only one that matters.

-Coop

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3 Comments •

Comments

  1. Sam Fragoso

    A very interesting piece.

    I feel you’re taking Rotten Tomatoes far to literal. The audience score is ridiculous – most people just give the film 5 starts before seeing it – because they want to see it or they just want to rate as many movies as possible.

    The gap between film critics and audiences is natural – though, more or less completely ridiculous.

    Audiences loved “Transformers” … I hated the film. Not to jump on some bandwagon because a majority of other critics didn’t like it – but because I found no redeeming value in the film – not to mention the sheer frantic and collage of images on screen jumbled together to make you barf rather than entice.

    Then there’s the 73% score … one that is high for RT – and you made an odd note by mentioning “Crazy Stupid Love” and “Captain: America” – pretty much the only two pictures accepted by critics alike (neither of which I gave a positive review towards). “The Help”, though I haven’t seen it, will not be receiving any Oscar nominations.

    Sorry, that may sound ignorant – but I can pretty much guarantee it won’t. Reasons? The film is coming out too early in the year to be considered “Oscar mid-level, though nominated bait” – “Not receiving nearly enough praise from critics and audiences” – and overall just not likely do to its rather unoriginal, ho-hum inspirational story.

    Your article has inspired many thoughts. Though, negative reviews not mattering surely isn’t one of them. Any person can form their own opinion – but it takes a good person to be open enough, to listen to others.

  2. Heather Bailey

    I stopped paying attention to critics reviews when I read how wonderful ‘No Country for Old Men’ was, then sat through the worst movie ever made. Of course thats my opinion. As for the previous comment, I found it snide and snarky, enough so that it made me want to comment on it.

  3. Sam

    There does seem to be a growing disparity between critics and audiences but be that as it may there will always be a need for them if only for the debate they have the ability to inspire.

    I mean, we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place if it wasn’t for them and, whilst there may be downsides, (i.e. ‘opinions are all subjective’ and all that), I feel we still need them to help instigate issues surrounding various artforms.

    All this along with the fact that they have helped draw attention to particular films that would’ve otherwise been lost. Many classic films from the seventies era were promoted by the likes of Pauline Kael and if it weren’t for them Hollywood wouldn’t of been able to progress to what it is today.

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My short film THE BEST DAY premiered in October 2011 at the Delta Cinema in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

Little did I know I had a special guest in the audience who was about to ask me a question during the Q&A. Yep, I got a little flustered when I saw who it was.

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