Oh, for the good old days! For the days when critics like me were hated for being too highbrow. Back in those ancient and quaint times, the surest way to get your readers pissed off at you was to pan a popular movie. If you did, it let everyone know that you were an uptight, pointy-headed art- house prig who wasn’t on the side of The People, who didn’t enjoy the honest fun of down- and-dirty lowbrow Hollywood schlock. To be honest, I still get that kind of complaint all the time. But in the everyone’s-a-rebel perversity of the Internet era, I am just as likely to be assailed these days for liking down-and-dirty lowbrow Hollywood schlock too much. In our brave new world, mainstream media types like myself are either snobs…or we’re sellouts. The real point is that we can’t win.
Okay, I apologize. I really didn’t mean for the preceding paragraph to have that boo-hoo/poor-little-me tone. Yet the irony of it all, I have to say, is pretty rich. For years — for decades — readers wrote to me to complain when I panned this movie or that movie, and what the complaints often boiled down to was: Can’t you ever just go to the movies to have fun? As prickly as the comments often were, that question is an entirely valid one. In the 21st century, the vast majority of Hollywood movies — trippy videogame sci-fi thrillers, superhero action fables, extreme horror films, dumb-and-dumber comedies — have no pretense to do anything but entertain and divert you. If a critic can’t sit down at one of these films and have fun, then he or she is in deep s—t. Fun is the only thing these movies are about. And we reviewers, as a consequence, have become not so much film critics as fun critics. We’re judging the fun. Grading the pleasure. And hoping, at every movie, that some of what we’re consuming turns out to be a popcorn grand slam.
Yet God forbid that a critic actually watch a mass-entertainment comedy and love it to death! This week, I saw A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, and I thought it was outrageously hilarious and, in its neo-’80s stoner-surreal way, a deeply clever and inspired movie. Maybe the best of the Harold & Kumar escapades. And so I said so. And to honestly reflect my enthusiasm, I gave the movie the grade that I thought it deserved: a straight A. No qualifications. No pesky niggling minus. An all-out rave.
But, as is so often the case, this seems to have gotten under the collars of a great many people. “You really just gave Harold and Kumar an A?” writes Justin. “This, right here, makes me want to unsubscribe.” “An A???” fumes Jack. “So, if solely examining the grade, this film is better than The Dark Knight, Inception, etc. As good as District 9, There Will Be Blood? I know, I know, different reviewers, different analyzations — I get that, but c’mon, giving this an A automatically, by definition, places it in the same category as those excellent (and superior) films I listed above.”
That’s the rub, isn’t it? And it’s the issue I most want to talk about. By giving A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas an A, am I really saying that it’s as great a film as all the other films that I (or Lisa) have given an A to? Am I making a claim for the movie that the movie itself can’t sustain?
The obvious answer is that if you grade each and every movie within its aspirations, its chosen genre, within whatever it’s trying to do, then you’re probably being fair to that movie. You’re using different criteria to judge different films. And that makes cosmic sense.
That said, there’s a slippery slope to the judge-every-movie-within-its-genre argument. It can become an excuse for hype, for saying of more or less every film: It is what it is. (Yes, but what if what it is is crap?) A hilarious Harold & Kumar movie may not be the same thing as a powerful Iraq war drama — but a grade of A does, and should, mean a certain level of quality, inspiration, and excellence. (Do we say, with decades of hindsight, that a Marx Brothers movie is less of a classic than Stagecoach or The Maltese Falcon?) What I don’t like about the whole it is what it is argument is the implication that if you grade by genre, then you’re somehow grading on the curve. I’ll say right now that any movie I give an A to is a movie that I would consider putting on my 10 Best of the Year list. And the funny thing is, when I have put popcorn movies on that list, like What Lies Beneath or 13 Going on 30, I’ve taken a lot of guff for it. The reason, I think, is the same reason that people get annoyed when I give A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas an A. What they’re really saying is that I’m trying to make the film into something more than a piece of consumer product — and that, deep down, they want it to stay a piece of consumer product. To “overrate” it is to make a claim for it that violates the comfortable junkiness that’s at the heart of its appeal.
The movie industry, with its awards-season mania, has turned “quality” into a genre, a marketing category (“It’s an Oscar-worthy movie!”), and viewers, taking their cue from the industry, now want to keep movies rigidly within those categories. So if you give a film like Harold & Kumar an A, you may appear to be saying: It’s as good as The King’s Speech! And that offends the whole deeply stratified movie system. But if we can’t ever say that our lowbrow popcorn really does taste great, truly great — maybe, in some cases, as great as awards-season haute cuisine — then we’re just being dishonest about what draws us to movies in the first place. I have no doubt that I’ll now be accused of writing this post as a defensive gesture in light of my review of A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. But it would be a sad day, wouldn’t it, when a critic — a critic! — has to apologize for having a blissed-out time at the movies.
So do you think there’s something wrong with a grading system that awards A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas and The Hurt Locker the same grade? Or do you think that there’s something deeply right with it?
Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman