The Times Devotes Its Entire Arts & Leisure Section to How Bad One Generic Romantic Comedy Is

01/08/2010 12:45 PM |



Half of page C8 in today’s Arts & Leisure section is devoted to A.O. Scott’s 725-word takedown of Leap Year: “I vowed to break the habit of seizing on every bad movie as a sign that civilization was collapsing…then I saw ‘Leap Year.'” “‘Leap Year’…does not fail to make use of [its] performers’ gifts. It doesn’t even try.” “His name is Jeremy, and the laws of Hollywood dictate that no romantic comedy heroine will ever wed a high-achieving Jeremy…”

And so on. It’s all very tart, wicked and funny; among his many other talents, Scott is a gifted ridiculer. But mid-way through reading it on the subway this morning, I wondered, why am I reading this at all?

It’s been asked a million times before, but shouldn’t critics—or rather, their publications—devote more time and energy to singing the praises of strong work? I’m grateful that the Times reviews just about every theatrical release in New York, and I understand that the editors feel that they should devote more space to large releases than small. (Though we could reasonably argue that point.)

But right below Scott’s review—which features an absurdly, unnecessarily large photograph of Amy Adams in the Irish countryside—is Jeanette Catsoulis’ review of Daybreakers, another wide release. Her review, very positive and rife with clever wordplay, hardly occupies a column (it’s roughly 200 MicrosoftWord words).

So why wouldn’t the Times devote more space to advocate for a movie one of its critics actually enjoyed? (And why does it give Stephen Holden huge chunks of page to write plot summaries? Well, that’s a question for a different day.) Probably because A.O. Scott is the paper’s co-senior critic, and he only saw Leap Year this cycle, and he didn’t like it, so…bitch bitch bitch!

But if all critics are good for is a witty derision of a major (predictably bad) release, it’s no wonder that people don’t read or trust critics anymore. By all means, let me know how bad Leap Year is. But don’t take the whole fucking film section to do it.

4 Comment

  • There was some conversation about this, a bit back, between (then-Times fourth-stringer) Matt Zoller Seitz and Jonathan Rosenbaum. The film at issue was Opera Jawa:…

    This sort of thing, a splashy pan and a tiny bit of underdog advocacy, happens everywhere, including the L and the Voice. You know why, I think, so this is not really for your edification so much, but: the lead critics get first pick, weighing interest, merit (to the extent that screenings enable them to pick from films they’ve seen), and “reader interest,” which basically means “ad budget,” and for the benefit of both mainstream readers and major advertisers probably weighs more heavily in the equation at The Paper of Record than here thank christ.

    I would presume that Tony and Manohla didn’t care for, or care about, Daybreakers. (It screened enough times that you wouldn’t necessarily have seen Tony at yours; and Manohla lives in LA still, right? So let’s not jump to the conclusion that they’re lazy.) So Leap Year was adjudged The Movie What Nobody Would Wonder Why We Were Reviewing This. Be glad, I conjecture, that Tony left Daybreakers for somebody who liked it.

    I suppose there could be an argument made that there should have been fewer words allotted to the staffer and more to the freelancer. That’s a bit dicey when it comes to such matters as the Editorial Voice and personality and whatever, is my one caveat. (I’d also argue that a good movie is not necessarily more interesting and worthy of attention than a bad movie, though this is a hard argument to make when the bad movie is bad in a way that a thousand similar movies have already been bad, and thus not particularly germane to a 725 word review of Leap Year.) (Sutton’s is 619!)

  • I would assume Scott sees most wide releases because he’s a co-host on At the Movies, and so has to see most stuff to review it on the TV (although: I think he and Phillips are doing a “worst of ’09” special this week to go with their “best of ’09” from the weekend before… so maybe he was able to skip the vampire movie this time. I also like Scott enough to hope that he’d be open to a good genre movie. I tend to assume Dargis, great as she is, would only be really interested if she particularly liked the allegory). Besides the show having two strong critics again, it’s fun to watch to see what Scott thought of movies he didn’t get a chance to address in print.

    Anyway, I’m guessing presumed audience is one of the biggest of those many sensible factors. I’ve often noticed that even if it’s the “biggest” (in terms of number of theaters and/or potential box office) movie of the week, a real hardcore genre movie (that is to say, a genre movie that comes out between January and April, or September and October, especially without big stars) will be given to Holden or a freelancer for a quick, cursory review. I’m assuming this is because they’re assuming Times readers don’t care about vampires, werewolves, kung fu, etc., unless they’re at the center of something more culturally quasi-significant (Twilight, etc.).

    And they might be on to something: when making plans to see some new releases this weekend, I found at least three smart, savvy women willing to go see Leap Year even while admitting that it will probably be bad and that we all feel a bit of shame over wanting to see for sure (damn you, Amy Adams!). I haven’t found any takers for Daybreakers, even though it’s gotten much better reviews, apart from a woman who is nearly contractually obligated to accompany me and, more to the point, likes horror movies and sees enough to know when one looks significantly better than its bretheren.

    Of course, this means the Times could do some good work, even for a decidedly non-obscure title as a 2,500-screen vampire movie, by better advertising “hey! this is worthwhile!” … but I also think a lot of normal, non-film-geeky readers check out reviews more to get a yay or nay on something they already want to see… not necessarily looking for new suggestions, unfortunately.

  • Yeah Mark, I didn’t mean to suggest Scott is lazy. As Jesse mentions, I’m sure he sees everything, what with his TV show and all. And Ben can go on as long as he likes since he’s on the web, where space constraints fly out the…window? (Screen?) But yeah I think my point was, like you said, cut back on words for the dud and give Catsoulis a little more space. (Or at least shrink that enormous picture…you’ve really got to see it in print.) I don’t think voice/etc. is a concern, she’s been stringing for them for a long time and, stylistically, fits in seamlessly.

    Jesse: I like seeing Scott on TV, too, although the more I hear his thoughts on films he didn’t address in print, the more I’m starting to question the reliability of his taste! You make an interesting point about readership, although “Youth in Revolt” was the lead review this morning (C1!)…are the Times’ readers more interested in teen sex comedies than vampire movies? Or is it just because Dargis wanted it?

    I guess the thing that irked me is that what the (powerful) writers want to write about outweighs what’s worth writing about. Not that that’s outrageous; Mark explains it pretty well. But still…gah.

  • At the Times, and at most publications, critics choose what they write about, in order of their position in the section’s pecking order. Tony and Manohla are co-lead critics, so they alternate weeks taking first pick; whoever is second that week gets second pick. Stephen Holden picks from whatever Tony and Manohla didn’t want. The “backup critic” (formerly me, now Jeannette) goes fourth. And any freelancers after that pick from what’s left.

    The great thing about being at the Voice or NYPress (where Armond White and I used to be co-lead critics before I quit in 2006, and alternated weeks calling first dibs) is that you could use your word count however you wanted and the editor never questioned you. One could write 1000 words on a big Hollywood release or give the entire column to some no-budget indie.

    I have no idea if that’s the case at the Times, never having been in that position there. I would like to think that Tony or Manohla have enough clout to give the lead slot to something unexpectedly small and/or foreign and/or unpromoted if they so desired — in other words, a movie one does not expect to see written about at length on the front page of the section. But not having been in that position there, I have no idea if that’s the case. There might be tremendous pressure to give the lead slot to a Hollywood movie (or an “art house” film that has been designated as important by virtue of winning a major film festival award). Or it might be entirely up to the critic. I just don’t know.

    It is unfortunate, though, that the most “desirable” films (judging from placement in the Times’ Arts section) tend to be either Hollywood studio movies or small and/or foreign films by established auteurs. Off-the-radar films almost always end up relegated to the 150- to 250-word capsule ghetto, deep inside the Arts section, often below the fold, usually without a picture.

    But the Times is hardly alone in weighting movies that way. And I guess filmmakers with no power should be grateful that the Times reviews such films at all. The other New York dailies have long since stopped pretending to care.