THE LONG SHOT: Critical condition

Posted by · 1:25 pm · November 4th, 2009

Gabourey Sidibe in PreciousAhead of its U.S. release this week, there is a wave of mild surprise in the blogosphere over the fact that “Precious,” the film deemed by some (yours truly included) to be the present Best Picture frontrunner, is currently sitting on a lowly Metacritic score of 57. Fitting neatly with the largely media-fabricated talk of a backlash against the film, some commenters are citing this rather arbitrary number as a debit against the film’s chances.

As much as I’d personally like that to believe that — and as relieved as I am to see that I’m not the only person who didn’t respond to the film – such talk will doubtless be short-lived, given the paucity of reviews making up the current score and the likelihood of raves to come. If anything, public support is more crucial than critical consensus to this film’s campaign – if audiences don’t turn up to see this grim, minority-oriented indie, many Academy members won’t feel compelled to either.

That said, it looks increasingly possible that “Precious” (I refuse to use that lumpy subtitle all season, by the way) could turn out to be a more critically divisive item than might have been expected following an ecstatically received festival run.

As I watched the film, it struck that it’s less the potential “Slumdog Millionaire” of this year’s awards race, and more the potential “Crash” – and not just because the films share a stable in Lionsgate. Both are socially conscious dramas that wear their emotional agendas very much on their sleeves, with a frank, unsubtle storytelling approach that proves wrenching to some viewers, and manipulative to others. That’s not to say the films’ respective fans and detractors will necessarily overlap, but they look to generate similar debate.

Whether or not “Precious” becomes more of a critical pet than Paul Haggis’s contentious 2005 Oscar spoiler, the temporary uncertainty over its press reception raises interesting questions about the level of influence attributed to critics during awards season – interesting, that is, because the evidence is so frequently contradictory.

Kate Winslet and David Kross in The ReaderAlready, the curious case of “The Reader” has become a handy standby for pundits arguing that critical opinion counts for little with the Academy in the face of sly campaigning, prestige ingredients and traditionally Oscar-favored themes. The film’s meager Metacritic score of 58 is routinely hauled out as shorthand proof, as sundry examples from “Chocolat” to “Finding Neverland” join it on the witness stand.

Well, yes and no. I’d need a whole column to address the problems inherent in the lazy latter-day practice of gauging critical reception via a single number from Metacritic (or worse still, Rotten Tomatoes), but suffice to say it’s not a system that deals effectively with polarizing titles. (An “Antichrist,” for example, sits on 50, despite the fact that almost no one feels indifferent about it. Even that weak “Reader” score conceals the fact that the film had a few prominent, ardently devoted champions.)

Yes, it is true that this decade alone has thrown up several Best Picture winners one would hardly term critical darlings – “Crash,” obviously, but also the hat-trick of “Gladiator,” “A Beautiful Mind” and “Chicago” – even if some were more tolerated than others.

On the flipside, however, a difficult, atypical winner like “No Country for Old Men” owes its Oscar entirely to critical consensus and the momentum of critics’ awards. (Even “The Silence of the Lambs,” with its massive public support, wouldn’t have completed that unlikely Oscar sweep if not for critics’ groups bestowing an air of respectability upon a grisly genre pic.) And there’s no question that it’s mostly critical championing that lands left-field nominations for the likes of Amy Adams in “Junebug” or Paul Greengrass for “United 93.”

Laura Elena Harring in Mulholland DriveBut to backflip again, even rock-solid critical consensus is no Oscar guarantee. Earlier this year, red-hot reviews and a sweep of the top critics’ prizes couldn’t help Sally Hawkins overcome the fact that most Guild and Academy members simply didn’t get (or watch) her eccentric little film. And a pair of the top critics’ Best Picture awards didn’t make “Mulholland Drive” or “American Splendor” any less implausible as Oscar contenders.

In contrast to bygone days when the Academy and the New York Film Critics (once the only critical precursor in the game) agreed on populist fare like “Around the World in Eighty Days” or “Going My Way,” the rise of auteur theory in the 1960s ensured a rarely reconciled split between critical and industry estimations of achievement. The Academy will no more nominate a “Yi Yi” than highbrow critics’ groups will consider a “Ghost,” but as I’ve written before, there’s much to celebrate in that difference.

So what does critical opinion mean to the Oscar race, then? The answer, as wishy-wishy as it sounds, is everything and nothing: if a film is something the Academy is already predisposed to liking, whether due to style, content or the names involved, a critical seal of approval can take it into the realm of the sure thing.

If the critics are less committed (but not actively repelled – sorry, “Amelia”), voters can still be lured – and this is where the campaigning savvy of a Harvey Weinstein, or a Lionsgate circa 2005, counts for more than any broadsheet scribe. It’ll be interesting to see whether “Precious” gathers enough critical momentum (and public favor) in the next few weeks to make it golden, or if enough vocal detractors come out of the woodwork to even necessitate a Plan B.

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36 responses so far

  • 1 11-04-2009 at 1:41 pm

    Encore Entertainment said...

    Even though I’m not rolling in anticipation for Precious I hate to think it’s the next Crash? What was your opinion on Crash though, Guy? And for that matter what was your opinion on Chocolat, Finding Neverland and The Reader?

  • 2 11-04-2009 at 1:51 pm

    geha714 said...

    The sucess of Chocolat, Finding Neverland and The Reader at the Oscars can be pointed in part to Harvey Weinstein’s machinery and influence.

  • 3 11-04-2009 at 1:52 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Okay, one by one:

    I thought “Crash” was heavy-handed tripe back in the summer of 2005, and my dislike of the film only intensified the more I had to think about it over Oscar season.

    I like “Chocolat,” actually. It’s a well-crafted, well-acted diversion that knows its audience and delivers accordingly. I never had a problem with its BP nom.

    “Finding Neverland” practically made me dry-heave, it’s so vacuous and saccharine.

    “The Reader” is a noble failure, I think. Awash with intelligence and feeling, but it never convincingly bridges its two stories and the rushed post-production is all too evident.

  • 4 11-04-2009 at 1:54 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    geha714: Of course. Which I describe in the article as “sly campaigning.”

  • 5 11-04-2009 at 2:00 pm

    Jim T said...

    I really think the current metacritic score means nothing in regard to its Oscar chances. There are only 8 reviews and RT indicate a very different state. But it’s not just that. I can’t really explain it. I guess I could say I think the buzz is just too strong. The only case the critics will influence things is in the case that Up In The Air achieves a better score which is quite possible. Even then, I’m not convinced it’s going to make a difference. The Hurt Locker (since we’re talking about metacritic scores) has no real chances for the win I think.

  • 6 11-04-2009 at 2:19 pm

    m1 said...

    I’m surprised that Precious has such a low score currently. @Jim T: I actually do think The Hurt Locker can win.

  • 7 11-04-2009 at 2:21 pm

    Loyal said...

    “If anything, public support is more crucial than critical consensus to this film’s campaign – if audiences don’t turn up to see this grim, minority-oriented indie, many Academy members won’t feel compelled to either.”

    To that point, I am interested in its release pattern for this weekend, opening not only in LA/NY but theatres (some heavily urban) in Atlanta, Chicago, and Alexandria, VA.

    I think it’ll be interesting to see what piracy does to Precious in the weeks ahead. Parts of the African American community have continued to widely embrace movie bootlegging moreso than illegal downloading.

    I fully expect people to be selling and exchanging CAM recordings of Precious in church parking lots on the South Side of Chicago by Sunday. And that could severely undermine the expected turnout by minorities.

  • 8 11-04-2009 at 2:22 pm

    Patryk said...

    Again I am having nightmarish flashbacks of “Shadowboxer.”

  • 9 11-04-2009 at 2:25 pm

    geha714 said...

    Guy, thanks for noticing.

  • 10 11-04-2009 at 2:35 pm

    The Other James D. said...

    Weinstein’s thrusting of “The Reader” into the game last season is precisely why I have subdued confidence in the chances of a nomination for “A Single Man”. But I digress on that.

    In response to your [wonderfully insightful] post, I had a similar suspicion all along that it would have ardent champions but that the gritty tone of the film would perhaps leave some less than enthusiastic. This *could* very well be the yellow brick road a film like “The Hurt Locker” needs, along with some critical scarecrows, tinmen, and cowardly lions, to perhaps be an underdog victor. (Yes, I do love the film, but I’m also trying to think like a voter–and I could see them loving this appealing and riveting film about a modern war that feels so unique for its genre.) Or, “Up in the Air” could emerge victorious when all is said and done….It might be time for a more genuine comedy to win BP once again.

    Or, or, or, or “Precious” will simply be one of the most divisive modern BP winners yet.

  • 11 11-04-2009 at 2:36 pm

    Jilda said...

    “I fully expect people to be selling and exchanging CAM recordings of Precious in church parking lots on the South Side of Chicago by Sunday.”

    I’m sorry but that sounds bad. And it won’t kill it’s box office that badly if all of these Madea movies can break $50 million. Why would it kill this film more than those?

  • 12 11-04-2009 at 2:37 pm

    Jilda said...

    And ALL films are heavily bootlegged.

  • 13 11-04-2009 at 2:41 pm

    Baxter said...

    Interesting thing to note about Metacritic’s score– it says 57, but if you actually add up and average the scores it lists, it should be 66. Not a huge difference, but still people get so hung up on early scores.

    I also can’t help but feel like heightened expectations after so many months of buzz is what drove some of the reviews down, numberwise. I haven’t seen the movie, so I can’t comment on whether it’s good or bad, and clearly some people just don’t like it (Guy truly included), but I think that at the festivals this had the “coming-out-of-nowhere” factor, and now that people expect it to be great, they will judge it more harshly than they normally would.

  • 14 11-04-2009 at 3:02 pm

    /3rtfu11 said...

    Why are you reducing Precious? Comparing it to Crash (05) is a sure fire way to keep people away from the film – and I’m sure Precious is superior to Crash (05) and that piece of shit Shadowboxer.

  • 15 11-04-2009 at 3:05 pm

    Loyal said...

    @ Jilda

    It is what it is unfortunately. Assuming Precious falls in line with Perry’s other films, the average we’re looking at is $55,774,071.

    Anything less and I’m sure producers will try to assign blame to many things, including piracy in the black community.

  • 16 11-04-2009 at 3:21 pm

    al b. said...

    Entertainment Weekly’s 100 boosted the total to 62 as of now, still very surprising to me. I expected to see 80+. I guess this “backlash” has been pretty effective.

  • 17 11-04-2009 at 3:30 pm

    Loyal said...

    Armond White, my favourite insane critic on the planet, completely destroyed the film.

    For a Harlem-set film, its getting pummeled by NY critics.

  • 18 11-04-2009 at 3:35 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Baxter: Metacritic always weights some critics’ scores more than others. It’s never a direct average.

    /3rtfu11: I’m not “reducing” Precious by comparing it to Crash. I just think there are a lot of legitimate parallels between the two — the fact that I don’t like either film isn’t my point. (And for what it’s worth, I think Crash is a better film.) Lest we forget, a lot of respectable people (the esteemed editor of this site included) regard Crash very highly.

  • 19 11-04-2009 at 4:29 pm

    Chase K. said...

    By the way, Metacritic has a completely ridiculous method of putting a “weight” on the reviews. I love the fact that they weed through the pack, but some critics have a bigger weight to their score than others — you can’t go strictly by adding and dividing…

  • 20 11-04-2009 at 4:29 pm

    Chase K. said...

    Whoa…there’s an echo in here.

    I just repeated what Guy wrote.

  • 21 11-04-2009 at 4:30 pm

    JAB said...

    All I know is:
    – the TV spot I’ve seen for this film 40 million times by now is one of the BEST 30 second tv spots I’ve ever seen. The use of the Leona Lewis song “Happy” is perfect.
    -the book is depressing and riveting, and Mo’nique will probably blow my mind in that role.
    – Sidibe’s interview with Ellen made me SO happy that someone that awestruck and fun can turn out what I’m hoping is a knockout performance.

    also, can we STOP assuming that black people are going to ruin this film’s business by bootlegging? That’s just plain racist.

  • 22 11-04-2009 at 4:38 pm

    The Other James D. said...

    Ugh, Leona Lewis, that melismatic chipmunk. DO NOT WANT.

  • 23 11-04-2009 at 4:41 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Ah, so are YOU the one who punched her in the face at her book signing, James?


  • 24 11-04-2009 at 4:46 pm

    Matt said...

    I haven’t seen Precious and I want to, but I am trying not to have too many expectations. But if it has such a poor score on Metacritic, why does it have an 86% rating at RottenTomatoes (and 90% so far with Top Critics)?

    It was really a shame that Sally Hawkins in Happy-Go-Lucky didn’t get an Oscar nomination, because it was an incredible performance.

  • 25 11-04-2009 at 4:51 pm

    Guy Lodge said...

    Because, as I explain in the article, Metacritic had only counted a handful of reviews at the time of writing. It’s going up already.

  • 26 11-04-2009 at 4:52 pm

    The Other James D. said...

    Ack, my cover is blown! Yes, ’twas I who gave her some bleeding love, then set up some poor schizo slag as I took the now-extinct Concorde back to America in time for “Glee”.

    This is the effect derivative pop songs have on me.

  • 27 11-04-2009 at 4:58 pm

    M.Harris said...

    Let’s face it – the down-trotting subject matter alone will keep some movie goers away.Even thought it appears to be a quality film.That’s why in my opionion – critical consensus is more important than public support when it comes to this particular film.

    I think that critical consensus-Oscar buzz,favorable reviews etc.etc.will encourage some of the Academy voters to see “Precious.”

    Unlike “The Reader” I think that Acdemy voters will pay attention to the mostly positive reviews of this film,that’s been building up momentum since January of 2009.

    “The Reader” was released late in the season(I believe they knew that it wasn’t going to blow anyone away critically)thus giving a lot less time for the Academy to mull over the mixed reviews of the film.

    I think that it was your typical “Oscar bait” movie that drew the good fortune of being released at the last minute of the awards season.

  • 28 11-04-2009 at 5:09 pm

    m1 said...

    Good news. The average increased to a 62.

  • 29 11-04-2009 at 6:57 pm

    Marshall said...

    Just curious…does anyone think “Precious” could be a box office hit like “Slumdog Millionaire” was last year?

  • 30 11-04-2009 at 7:37 pm

    kmoore8435 said...

    Why hasn’t metacritic posted Emanuel Levy’s rave? It’s been live for weeks…hasn’t it?

  • 31 11-04-2009 at 8:04 pm

    Me. said...

    I still don’t get the “Precious” hype. Especially after seeing “Micmacs”, “Bright Star” and “A Serious Man”, which are works of art and succeed in everything they want to show.

    “Precious”, on the other hand, is a film that fails at what it wants to show. It starts with the following quote: “Everything in the world is a gift”, but after seeing all the things “Precious” goes through (and the explicit ways director Lee Daniels shows them), I left the Roy Thompson Hall feeling disturbed and sad, rather than uplifted and feeling hope for the character. Gabourey Sidibe and Mo’Nique are extraordinary playing their respective parts, and I have no problems with them getting Oscar nominations, but I think the directing was terrible.

  • 32 11-04-2009 at 9:14 pm

    red_wine said...

    I find it just exasperating when people slam The Reader for what seems like no reason at all. The entire Oscar nominations last year were bad, its not like The Reader stuck out like a sore thumb amidst a quality line-up. It was not even the worst film up for Best Picture, that would be Benjamin Button. Most people’s hatred comes because so many of individual favorites missed the cut and The Reader is also accused of taking out The Dark Knight. I for one like the film. I was specially impressed with its definitely ‘out there’ idea of morality.

    But reviews be damned when it comes to Precious, its still the front-runner, and it wouldn’t hurt its credibility with the academy in the slightest. It is in effect critic-proof.

  • 33 11-05-2009 at 2:53 am

    Dan said...

    I agree, Red wine. The Reader was not the worst of the nominated films last year.

  • 34 11-05-2009 at 3:02 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    No. That’d be “Frost/Nixon,” for my money.

  • 35 11-05-2009 at 5:24 am

    The Other James D. said...

    I’m in sync with red_wine here. “The Reader” was just fine. It’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” that was weak sauce. Fincher deserved his directorial nod, but the pic and Pitt shouldn’t have gotten close to recognition. I wouldn’t nominate “Reader” either though”. Or “Frost/Nixon”. My alphabetized lineup (notice the line break, for either 5 or 10):

    Boy A****
    The Dark Knight
    Frozen River
    Love Songs
    Pineapple Express
    Rachel Getting Married
    Slumdog Millionaire
    Snow Angels

    **** = My winner.

  • 36 11-06-2009 at 2:07 am

    Robin said...

    I’m definately feeling the Crash parallel here. Notice again that the Chicago critics have been the ones to fall over the film in their praise (especially a certain Crash advocate who shall go unnamed). The problem for the film is that it has an underdog victor vibe but is being positioned as the months in advance frontrunner. It worked for ‘Slumdog’ last year, but that was more a film people felt they “discovered” and it was quite simply all but universally adored.