Why Critics Are Seen As Clubby Elitists

A fair-sized percentage of the New Yorkers and Los Angelenos who will pay to see Ira SachsLove Is Strange (Sony Pictures Classics) this weekend will be doing so, I’m guessing, because it’s racked up a 96% Rotten Tomatoes rating and a Metacritic rating of 85%. That averages out to 90.5, which pretty much means “whoa…let’s definitely see this before Sunday night!” And then they’ll see it and most, I’m presuming, will emerge moderately pleased, although others, I’m fairly certain, will be feeling a bit confused and perhaps even frowning. I can imagine some guy saying to a friend, “It was nice but a little…what’s the word? Enervating? It doesn’t have much of a pulse. Why did the critics get so excited? Is it me? Do I lack sensitivity or something? Because from my perspective it was almost a meh. A nice sensitive meh.”

The reason Love Is Strange has done so well among N.Y. and L.A. critics is because a private memo was sent around two or three weeks ago. I won’t say who wrote it and I can’t even quote directly, but it more or less said the following: “This is a nice, low-key, sensitive little Sundance movie, possibly autobiographical to some extent, from an admired, openly gay New York filmmaker, and we don’t want to be anything but gentle and admiring in our responses. No snark, no snippy-ass remarks, no put-downs…Love Is Strange is an opportunity for all of us to to open our pores and show the world how enormously sensitive we are when given half a chance and to show our respect and affection for gay people who marry and also to show how humanistic and 21st Century our attitudes are. Plus it pushes back, deftly but forcefully, against anti-gay discrimination by Catholics and other religious organizations. So be nice, and if you want to play it extra-safe, be really nice.”

We all have a pretty clear idea what it means when a film draws a Rotten Tomatoes rating in the mid ’90s. It means great word of mouth, possible Oscar or Spirit Award noms and people feeling great and hugging each other in the lobby when it’s over. When nice but underwhelming and even occasionally boring films like Love Is Strange earn 96% RT ratings, it hurts the next really good film that gets a 96% rating because people will say, “Well, what does a 96% rating mean at the end of the day? You can’t trust big-city critics…they have really peculiar tastes sometimes…I mean, did you see Love Is Strange? A nice little film but c’mon…the critics went nuts for it. It should have had…what, an 80% or 85% rating at most? There has to be a sense of honest proportion about this stuff or you can’t trust anyone or anything.”

Do you want a non-equivocating, straight-from-the-shoulder review of Love Is Strange? Listen to The Wall Street Journal‘s Joe Morgenstern (a.k.a. “Jomo”), a man of iron. Or re-read my 8.21 review.

  • brenkilco

    A thinking person would never rush out to see a movie with a 96% RT rating. And not just because of the dwindling numbers and discrimination of the group being polled. Any truly great film would instantly alienate a chunk of the more staid critics and be beyond the ken of a good chunk more. With any rating over 75% you need to read between the lines. And of course a positive RT rating really tells you nothing as it doesn’t distinguish between a mildly pleasant piece of PC granola and the second coming of Kane.

    • I agree with your assessment of Love Is Strange: “A mildly pleasant piece of PC granola.”

    • JoeS

      While I certainly agree that RT is pretty rotten as a general guide, I don’t agree with the over 75% rule meaning a film can’t be great:

      IDA, THE LIVES OF OTHERS, A SEPARATION, LA GRANDE BELLEZZA, SHORT TERM 12 etc etc. All are some of the best films I’ve seen recently and all are well above that 75% threshold and none of them could be considered “piece(s) of PC granola”.

      A great movie doesn’t necessarily have to “alienate” or “be beyond the ken” of general critics.

      • brenkilco

        It varies of course. Sensitive explorations of the human spirit are more likely to receive an obligatory thumbs up. Primer got a 72 and Eyes Wide Shut a 77. Seems about right for more challenging fare. And I’m not saying that a positive rating means a movie is pablum. Just that the system does not distinguish between meh and wow.

        • JoeS

          Most wouldn’t call PRIMER or EYES WIDE SHUT up there with A SEPARATION, IDA or LIVES OF OTHERS either (I certainly don’t). So the lower score is more “understandable”.
          What are some of your fave ‘great’ movies of the past 5 years??

    • Lou Rawls’ Ego

      I’ve never used a RT rating when deciding what movie to go to.

  • BromanBrolanski

    I can’t imagine giving any kind of shit about a Rotten Tomatoes percentage. The amount of garbage, nobody publications they aggregate is staggering. “Ooooh The Boonton Bugler said Stranger By The Lake was rotten!”

  • CBJ

    Or maybe just a lotta people who write for publications like it. But keep fighting the good fight against specialty films. If box office top tens, Oscar and Golden Globes awards winners, and general public perceptions are any indication, you’re winning handily.

  • MikeSchaeferSF

    Sachs’ last film, “Keep the Lights On” was the sort of movie brenkilco is talking about above: some adored it, some hated it. (I’m gay and I couldn’t stand it — the characters were incredibly whiny and annoying to me) So I suspect this was Sachs’ attempt to make something “nice”. And yes, for the millionth time: RT ratings are meaningless compared to Metacritic.

    • JoeS

      I agree on the Metacritic vs RT metric. But, this has an 85 on Metacritic as well.

      And, hey, Jeff. Maybe a lot of critics just LIKE the movie? What a concept.

      • lazarus

        This. A high RT rating doesn’t necessarily mean everyone (or anyone) thought it was great. It just means less people thought it was bad.

        • JoeS

          …..skipping over the more accurate Metacritic high rating………

  • Muscle McGurk

    If that memo is true, then the entire critical system in NY and LA has been exposed as a fraud.

    • DuluozRedux

      Seriously, if this is actually happening, I think that is a huge story, and Wells, you should be the one behind exposing these frauds because their chicanery goes to the very heart of your integrity as a tastemaker.

      There’s always been suspicion that lefty leaning films are given a more hands off critique than other shit. It’s the reason Sundance labs will only accept scripts or projects that evince this bias.

      Wells, it’s up to you.

      • Glenn Kenny

        Clearly, you fellas are not getting “the metaphor.”

        • DuluozRedux


        • Muscle McGurk

          So you claim authorship then?

        • Thank you.

  • You are recommending the film The One I Love. That is the movie you should be warning people about. Interesting concept but … wanting.

  • Also, you’re accusing critics like AO Scott, Andrew O’Hehir and James Rocchi of doing this guy a favor with their enthusiastic reviews. I think you’re dead wrong. http://www.salon.com/2014/08/21/love_is_strange_more_than_a_gay_marriage_story_a_gorgeous_fable_of_american_life/

    Because you didn’t like it/get it doesn’t mean that was the general reaction.

    • Oh, I got it, all right!

      • Glenn Kenny

        Shorter Wells on “Love Is Strange:” “Ecch, homo!”

  • Mr. F.

    “The reason Love Is Strange has done so well among N.Y. and L.A. critics is because a private memo was sent around two or three weeks ago.”

    Apparently, the secret memo about “Sin City: A Dame To Kill For” got lost in the mail.

  • m_00_m

    “We all have a pretty clear idea what it means when a film draws a Rotten Tomatoes rating in the mid ’90s.”

    ARGH!!! No, ‘we’ don’t!!

    If someone loves a movie, it’s “Fresh”. Likes it? “Fresh”. Doesn’t hate it? That’s right – it’s still “Fresh”. There’s no way, NONE to tell from a “Fresh” rating whether the person thinks a movie is amazing or merely pleasant. And if a movie is 96% “Fresh”, that only means 96% of the critics found the movie pleasant or better. Nothing else.

    In order to prevent just such retarded ‘evaluations’, could Rotten Tomatoes make at least *three* damn rankings?!

    1) Rotten: Don’t see it.
    2) Fresh: If you happen to see it, you won’t hate yourself afterwards.
    3) Delicious: You should stop what you’re doing right now to see this movie.