Monday, July 23, 2007

But wait...When we're talking movies, appreciation has limits

Summary: I'm not taking back anything I said in my last post about Roger Ebert's approach to criticism, but it's worth pointing out that some movies actually surrender their right to sensitive appreciation. I'm talking about hyped-up commercial vehicles that exist for one and only one reason -- to take your money and run.

Evidently, a lot of people have decided to send some of their hard-earned cash Adam Sandler's way: Sandler's "I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry" -- a lame comedy about two straight firemen who pretend to be a gay couple -- took in more than $34 million, topping box-office receipts for the July 20th weekend.

Now with a crude and cloying comedy such as "Chuck and Larry," I see no necessary reason that a critic must engage in an act of sympathetic imagination. (See last post.) Faced with tripe, the critic ought to pull up his or her shields and attempt to deflect the corrosive glare of exploitation. Such movies -- many of which are far worse offenders than "Chuck and Larry" -- aspire to nothing more than slipping a grubby hand in your pocket.

Don't get me wrong: Not all such films are awful, but there's a difference between reviewing commodities and commenting on movies that pander to the baser instincts of the rude and scoffing multitudes.

And, yes, I'm aware that many movies manage to straddle both sides of the fence and might even be better off for it.

To take a somewhat recent example, Steven Spielberg's "Munich" was both entertaining and meaningful. I'm hoping the same will be true of the upcoming "The Bourne Ultimatum," though probably on a lesser scale. Don Cheadle's "Talk to Me" has elements of both art and entertainment. So do the "Harry Potter" movies, particularly the most recent installment.

The profit-motive remains inseparable from most movies. Aside from those who regard "The Producers" as a how-to manual, no one sets out to make a movie with hopes of losing money. Nothing wrong with the marriage of art and commerce.

But when a movie's cravenly, even crassly commercial, critics are allowed -- maybe even obligated -- to take a different approach. To me such blatantly commercial movies are a bit like dates who push for sex but refuse to spring for a dinner. We all deserve to be seduced a little when it comes to movies.

Part of a critic's responsibility is to know and point out the difference between popcorn pablum and food that nourishes the heart and mind -- not to mention out-and-out garbage.

When a movie emits the fetid stink of garbage, the critic has but one job: Put on rubber gloves, pick it up as if holding a three-day-old dead rat by the tail and carry it quickly to the trash.

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