Is it so wrong of me to miss writing a pan?
This summer has been unusually strong at movie theaters, and I’ve been handing out four-star and 3½-star reviews like gummi bears. When the neighbors stop me during the morning dog walk and ask what they should go see, I have answers for once: documentaries like “Three Identical Strangers,” “RBG,” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” dramas like “Leave No Trace” and “Eighth Grade,” art-film puzzlers like “Zama,” mainstream superhero romps like “Ant-Man and the Wasp.”
Positive reviews can be easy to write: You like a movie, you want to get the word out, and the only trick is not to tip into overenthusiasm — to crank a reader’s expectations up past the delivery point. (That said, I’m guilty of it all the time.)
Mixed reviews, by contrast, can be a chore, in that the weighing of elements, pro and con, can turn into a laundry list, and because it’s hard to muster the energy for cookie-cutter movies that have so little energy or inspiration themselves.
Writing a good, righteous pan, though — that can feel liberating. Some movies just seem to roll out the welcome mat for scorn and invective, because they’re cynically made or dreadfully written and acted or because the idea that motivates them was dunderheaded to begin with. It can feel good to clear out the critical bile ducts — sometimes too good. It helps to remember that even disasters are created by human beings and that those human beings all have mothers. On the other hand, slack should not be cut where none is deserved.
Am I guilty of over-panning? Sure. I look back on my 2003 review of “Gigli,” the infamous Ben Affleck-Jennifer Lopez “comedy” about a low-level gangster and the lesbian hit-lady he “converts,” and think, “You know, zero stars was a little harsh. A half star is about right for a movie that’s a dull, dim-witted slog rather than a Hall of Fame disaster.”
As far as I can remember, I’ve given out four no-star reviews in my 16 years at the Globe. Aside from “Gigli,” they are: “All About Steve” (2015), in which Sandra Bullock plays a wacky, crossword-puzzle-loving romantic stalker and of which I wrote, “It is to comedy what leprosy once was to the island of Molokai: a plague best contemplated from many miles away”; a hideously misguided Russian “Nutcracker in 3D” (2010), featuring Nazi rats wearing giant farting rocket packs (“first-degree cultural homicide”); and “Bratz” (2007), a wretched spinoff of a wretched line of dolls (“I could actually feel my brainstem shrivel up as I watched it”).
What was I thinking when I didn’t give zero stars to “Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat” (2003), a pox on the eyeballs and the movie I routinely cite as the Worst Of All Time? I awarded it one-half star, the equivalent of a D-minus, but 15 years later Mike Myers’s career still hasn’t recovered, and I stand by my characterization of the depressing crassness with which the movie sells out the good and gentle Dr. Seuss: “If the producers had dug up Ted Geisel’s body and hung it from a tree, they couldn’t have desecrated the man more.”
It bears reminding that, for many critics, the star-rating thing is a gut process rather than a strict algorithmic formula. A zillion years ago I wrote a column that pretty much gave away the recipe for secret sauce and spelled out my reasoning in awarding dingbats. Four stars? Not perfect but close enough for practical purposes. Three? High praise for unpretentious genre stuff, a lukewarm thumbs-up for more challenging fare. Two stars: average formula product, and if you like the genre or the star, go for it.
“When we get below that,” I wrote in 2003, “all bets are off. One and a half stars merely means a movie has won its battle against badness. One star means it has lost that battle. A half star means it lost the battle and was a terrible idea to start with. No stars: melt the prints into guitar picks.”
Looking back over the years, my harshest critiques may have been spurred by disappointment. Because I loved “The Lovely Bones,” the novel by Alice Sebold, I hated “the Lovely Bones,” the garish, overblown 2010 movie adaptation in which director Peter Jackson “takes this small, fragile story, and he breaks it.” Because we could all use a good King Arthur movie, my ire over Guy Ritchie’s “King Arthur: Legend of the Sword” (2017) — “a digitized 3-D vulgarization of the Camelot legend so complete that it staggers the senses” — was complete.
In most cases, writing a takedown of someone else’s work doesn’t provide pleasure. A critic’s job isn’t to attend to the feelings of creators but to the interests of readers, for whom the critic serves (inasmuch as the reader allows it) as an early-warning system — the canary in the multiplex. “Wonder Wheel” (2017) is “one of the Very Bad Ones” in the up-and-down of Woody Allen’s career not to take a swipe at a beleaguered moviemaker but to alert even fans to fasten their seat belts for an extremely bumpy ride.
But sometimes the wrongheadedness is of a sort that just begs for merciless razzing. The high-water mark here is probably Anthony Lane’s takedown of “Star Wars Episode 3 — Revenge of the Sith” for The New Yorker in 2005, a critical disemboweling so hilarious (“How Padmé got pregnant is anybody’s guess, although I’m prepared to wager that it involved Anakin nipping into a broom closet with a warm glass jar and a copy of Ewok Babes”) yet so penetrating (“it takes a vulgarian genius such as Lucas to create a landscape in which actions can carry vast importance but no discernible meaning”) that I teach it to students, and I’m probably not the only one.
The fact remains that schadenfreude can be fun, especially when it’s of a kind that reaches for artistic grandiosity and lands somewhere in the weeds. I think of “Salinger,” Shane Salerno’s 2013 documentary mash-note to writer J.D. Salinger that overdoses on undergraduate adulation and illustrates the author’s retreat to the wilds of New Hampshire by showing an actor “walking along a dirt road in what looks suspiciously like the Hollywood Hills. Carrying a log.”
Some movies just seem to roll out the welcome mat for scorn and invective, because they’re cynically made or dreadfully written and acted.
One star. And that was probably being kind.Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.