“If it had been released 50 years ago, The Help would have been the cinematic event of the summer.” This is how critic Stephen Farber began a piece on middlebrow message movies published two weeks ago by the L.A. Times. No, I’m not kidding, and oh, it gets worse. The whole article reads like a satirical attempt at bad, counterintuitive criticism. Maybe there’s a good argument to be made for valuing gently progressive, Stanley Kramer-esque dramas in the 21st century, but Farber sure isn’t making it.
That opening sentence certainly doesn’t bolster his credibility. Does he seriously think that the only difference between 2011 and 1961 is that critics now are more “persnickety” and less open to middlebrow fare? Does he really not suspect any legitimate reasons, reasons other than widespread critical bias, why the passage of that half-century should lead to “lukewarm” reviews for The Help? This colossal blind spot (or should I say blind side?) hobbles his argument from the get-go, because most of the vitriol currently aimed at The Help is spurred by its racial politics first and its status as a well-intentioned prestige picture a distant second.
But no, if you ask Farber, critics are unmoved by The Help and its bland brethren because these days, they cherish trashy genre movies instead. (He doesn’t mention Pauline Kael by name, but her influence is obvious.) So these poor, tasteful movies suffer the indignity of—as Farber says of The King’s Speech— “not [being] universally loved.” They might win Best Picture, but what’s the point if a few heartless critics still mock them? Alas, the tragic plight of a middlebrow, Oscar-baiting drama… hey, you know, that sounds like a pretty good story for a movie!
Honestly, the piece is so lazily written it’s like he’s asking for bloggers to dissect it. He quotes negative reviews of social problem dramas like The Whistleblower and A Better Life as evidence of anti-middlebrow bias, but never takes on the critics’ claims with any specificity. He never even addresses the possibility that these might just be, say, mediocre or bad movies. He also twice refers to middlebrow dramas as “ambitious,” even though they’re defined by their formal conservatism. To quote the bard Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
Farber closes out his argument with this kids-these-days sentiment:
Younger critics in particular are desperate to prove that they’re hip, and so they champion esoteric, highbrow movies — “The Tree of Life,” “Meek’s Cutoff,” “The Future” — that most audiences are more likely to find ponderous, impenetrable or impossibly precious. These younger reviewers also have a fondness for lowbrow fare — gross-out comedies like “Superbad” or violent genre pictures like “Bellflower” and “Zombieland.”
Clearly if us kids weren’t so focused on hipster posturing, we could appreciate the real pleasures of cinema: preachy melodramas about Real World Issues! This anti-youth potshot is in character with the rest of the article, whose overall point seems to be, “Why can’t critics go back to loving mediocre, respectable movies like they used to?” The answer, of course, is that they do. Many critics have been blown away by The Help, just as many swooned at The King’s Speech. Mediocre movies will always find an audience eager to have its intelligence and taste flattered.
All told, I think Farber’s article really pissed me off because it’s unnecessarily whiny. It’s good-natured whining, sure, but when your only grievance is that critics aren’t pouring enough adulation onto middle-of-the-road dramas, that’s definitely whining. The whole piece is spectacularly misjudged; thankfully, Mark Olsen offered up a very smart retort, again in the L.A. Times. No offense to Mr. Farber, who sounds like a fine writer and fellow, but when all you have to say is “I want more movies that alleviate my guilt and don’t take risks,” you don’t really have anything meaningful to say.