Tom Jolliffe looks at when filmmakers hit back at critics for mediocre reviews…
Not for the first time and not for the last, a Hollywood star, in this case Mindy Kaling, has accused specifically male reviewers (and even more specifically white male reviewers) of being unfairly biased against her film (in this case, Ocean’s 8). There have been an array of negatively reviewed films in the last few years and directors, stars, producers of these films have hissed like cats and scratched back at the critics. They’ve even gone as far as blaming critics for poor box-office numbers.
Rotten Tomatoes as a review aggregator has come in particularly for a lot of vitriol (from among others, Meryl Streep). In the case of Ocean’s 8 which apparently champions the female cause (and that of diversity too) it actually got predominantly favourable reviews. 68% is fairly middling but not to be sniffed at these days, and additionally it’s performed reasonably at the box office. For Kaling to come out and attack film criticism seems a tad extreme. She has valid points for sure. In the big leagues, among those lucky bastards who get paid to do this, there is definitely a big majority who are white males. What you also must consider is, that 20-30 years ago the balance was skewed almost entirely for the white guy. Many of those critics still do the job. Lets face it, it’s the best job in the world – it’s not physically demanding (well, unless you have to fight the gyrating, physically distressing reaction to watching an Adam Sandler film). Why would you give that up? It would also be unfair to turf out someone good at their job just to address diversity balance. Things are improving, and even in the blogosphere, where reviewers can attract a good amount of willing readers (FM can count ourselves among those influential blogs) we’re seeing more diverse mixes within the critical realm. People need to appreciate that any form of change takes time. It’s not a finger snap instant fix.
Where her argument slightly fell askew was in the notion that white male critics are inherently tuned not to like Ocean’s 8 as they’re not the target audience. Ocean’s 8 was reviewed by probably the same kind of critic demographic split as Bridesmaids for example. The studio idea on both was to do a film that we’ve seen men do, and simply put female stars in the roles. Bridesmaids was critically lauded and made masses of money at the box office. I’m a man. I liked it. Is that allowed? Are female reviewers not allowed to enjoy The Hangover for example? I enjoy blaxploitation films. I’m not the target audience. I enjoy watching Korean, Japanese, Chinese cinema. I’m not the target audience. An all time favourite of mine is Labyrinth which my brother keeps telling me, is a film for young girls. I don’t care about the target audience if I’m watching a film. I care about the film. Now if I feel a film is trying too hard to appeal to a certain demographic (over content) and that’s not me, then that may well sway me. I also admit that generally I could more happily accept a mediocre action film than a mediocre rom-com. That said, I will review both with the same critical evaluation. Look the male/female difference will have some bearing ultimately but not quite as significant a difference as is being stated.
I’ve not seen Ocean’s 8 yet. I enjoyed the male-led predecessors to a point. They were extravagant and enjoyable escapist fare. They had all the depth of a drying puddle of piss though. From the green light to the trailer, all it appears the makers of Ocean’s 8 have done is take exactly that formula and put female stars in it. Okay, that’s their prerogative, but without offering something different, something new, or with more character depth, they are essentially doing exactly what Soderbergh’s trilogy of capers did and can’t expect Oscar level reviews coming in. Maybe Kaling could be better placed in attacking the studio for not allowing a female to direct the picture. Or maybe question why the principal leads are white women and the diverse members of the cast (as they were in Soderbergh’s films) are secondary characters. Yes, kudos on providing the platform for a female-centric film, but it’s far from perfect and not as courageous as it’s being billed as. It’s the equivalent of handing in your homework, and it being returned with a B- and ‘could do better’ written in the corner. The overriding reality of this film is that behind it is a cynical white male marketing mentality. It’s made to attract predominantly a particular audience to cinemas and its primary remit is making money. Hollywood Studios are more likely to try and exploit a diversity push, than genuinely desire to improve matters. The returns are what count. The content is secondary. Like the male version it’s dramatically flimsy, resting largely on the talent and charisma (Kaling included, who incidentally I think is always great) of its cast.
What these attacks against film criticism boil down to though is sour grapes. That 10% of valid argument is overridden by an entitled boo-hooing because your film didn’t get 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. For better and worse, we’re very much in the middle of a soapbox age. Everyone wants to take the podium and speak up about something. Trouble is, for every person making an impassioned, valid, and important point, there will be three people wanting to make themselves heard without quite the same validity and they only end up muddying the original voice. There’s a danger of (keyboard, soapbox) gang warfare. Critics vs film-makers. Fans vs Critics. Fans vs Film-makers.
In every avenue of film (from creation, to the post-evaluators) diversity does need to improve. That’s not in question. However in the vast majority of cases, aggregators will accurately show a film to be good, or bad. There’s a legitimate reason Marvel films average well over 80% and DC films score around 40%. The former are just better films in every sense of consideration. Personal taste does often come into criticism, it has to, but we still (if we’re doing it right) consider all the elements that go into making the film from the writing, direction, editing to the on screen performers. In many cases, critics (from the top publications to Joe Blog) have actually studied film at college/University. Film is a passion. You have to love film to go as far as studying it for a degree. The idea that my opinion on a film with an all female cast is thus invalid is insulting. Politicising criticism is counter productive. Lets face it too. Not every box office smash is an overriding critical success. Not every overriding critical smash is a box office success. The two don’t go hand in hand.
Ultimately, it just seems like the modern blame culture always needs an outlet. When you’ve made a film or starred in it, that you believe in, of course you won’t like seeing it get shredded by critics. However in the overriding vast majority of cases, to attack a critic’s race or sex as a way of questioning their legitimacy as a reviewer is inherently wrong and a little pathetic. There shouldn’t be a pre-cursor apology before every review if you’re not quite the demographic the creators of the film want. If Ocean’s 8 had scored 90+%, we’d not have heard anything from the cast about diversity in criticism. Empowerment for the underrepresented is great, but you’ve got to do it when things are going great too, not just when it suits. There’s just a hint of suggestion in comments from Kaling etc, that any film ‘championing’ diversity should thus be immune from negative criticism. That’s not how this works. So…Dear Hollywood. Stop moaning and make better films!