Mixing Up The Formula: Critical Inconsistencies

February 23, 2015

By Peter Howell

More than a few times in my nearly 20 years as a movie critic, someone at a party or other social gathering has told me how much they dislike movie critics.

"Dios mio, man. Liam and me, we're gonna fuck you up."
“Dios mio, man. Liam and me, we’re gonna fuck you up.”

“The problem with you people is that you’re never satisfied,” the beef usually begins. “You hate everything.”

My usual rejoinder is to oh-so-cleverly quote The Dude from The Big Lebowski, as said to Jesus Quintana: “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.”

And that is usually that, with the other person either smiling or giving a puzzled expression, depending on how well they know their Coen Bros. movies. Lately, though, I’ve been thinking that maybe these random party grousers have a point. The default position of a movie critic is to find fault; it’s right there in the job title. To criticize.

But to criticize for the sake of criticizing? Even when a film gives us what we say we want, more often than not, we still tug on the loose threads of the sweater. Critics moan that movie sequels too often just repeat the formula that made earlier film(s) successful. Yet we also carp when they don’t repeat the formula.

This came to mind the other night watching Hot Tub Time Machine 2, a misbegotten sequel to the frothy 2010 comedy about dissatisfied middle-aged pals magically reliving their 1980s glory days via a malfunctioning spa tub. The lewder and cruder sequel goes out of its way to eliminate or alter everything that was unique and funny about the original. The pals are no longer amusing, having turned into nasty charlatans and thieves. They’re crucially missing John Cusack’s straight man character (Cusack reportedly wasn’t even approached). Even the premise is somehow dialled down: the time travel is to an indistinct 2025 and the time tub now operates according to boring sci-fi physics and chemicals, rather than Looney Tunes logic and a spilled energy drink.

(Critically) Tepid Tub Time Machine 2.

In short, it ain’t what it used to be, which in theory should please novelty-seeking critics. But most of us hated the film – as the dismal 14% “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes attests – because we abhor bad writing and incompetent filmmaking more than we do repetition. Right? I’d happily watch the original Hot Tub Time Machine again, but a repeating viewing of the sequel would feel like cruel and unusual punishment.

It was a similar situation last month when Taken 3 was foisted upon an eager populace. Liam Neeson once again plays Bryan Mills, an ex-CIA agent and divorced dad who uses his “particular set of skills” to save family members from abducting evildoers. In major departures from the boilerplate plots of Taken and Taken 2, the action has been shifted from Europe to L.A., the family threat angle is downplayed and there’s no single satisfying phone call where Neeson, deepening his rich Irish brogue, threatens awesome payback. Were the critics happy with all these changes? Hell no.  The attempt at novelty was laudable, but the script was laughable. Once again, I’d argue that most us would prefer sturdy formula to lame innovation.

The issue of critical consistency gets really interesting when you consider 50 Shades of Grey, the current No. 1 box office adaptation of the bodice-ripping and bottom-spanking E.L. James novel of the same name. Most critics noted in their reviews, as I did, that the story of a virginal-but-curious college student falling under the spell of a BDSM-craving billionaire works better as a film than as a book. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson and screenwriter Kelly Marcel dispensed with the moronic first-person narrative used by James, who thinks twentysomething women say “Oh, crap!” and “Oh, my!” a lot.

So far, so good. But the film also considerably softens the whips and spankings administered by title kinkster Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) to his cautiously willing BDSM partner Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson). To most critics, present company included, this seemed liked a copout, a cynical attempt to get the widest possible audience for a sex film that by any reasonable definition should have the strongest possible movie rating: “R” in Ontario and NC-17 in the U.S. (It actually got 18A from the province and “R” from the MPAA stateside, both ratings being one step lower than the maximum.)

This seemed like cowardice and hypocrisy on all fronts, especially in the U.S., where the MPAA censors have historically been far more concerned about curbing nudity and sex on screen than violence and bloodshed. Yet even as I slammed 50 Shades of Grey and its enablers for going limp on the hardcore stuff, admittedly I wouldn’t have preferred to see a more explicit cut of the film.  I get no joy out of watching a woman receiving pain, even if “it’s only a movie” and even if she’s supposedly willing to submit to the lash for the sake of sexual thrills.

I’m glad that Anastasia seems more control of her destiny on the screen than she does on the page. I’m happy that 50 Shades of Grey the movie is 50 shades of bland. Does this make me the coward and hypocrite?  Maybe, but as I tell inquisitors who pursue the “critics hate everything” argument, what we really hate is being reminded that our judgments aren’t as always as consistent and airtight as we think they are.

Perhaps the next time I quote The Dude, I should say this instead: “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man. And maybe you’re right.”