If you have ever placed the good judgment and viewing skills of film critics on a pedestal, if you always check reviews before deciding to watch a movie, and if you avoid anything that’s popular but critically panned, I urge you to watch a film many critics named one of the best of 2012: “Cosmopolis.”
It is also one of the worst films of the year.
“Cosmopolis” is directed by Canadian David Cronenberg (also responsible for “Videodrome,” “The Dead Zone,” and “A History of Violence”) and stars Robert Pattinson as an obscenely rich young man riding through New York City in a limo and encountering all sorts of characters while he loses his entire fortune in the course of one trading day.
The film was praised for its topical plot, its shrewd casting and its brilliant adaptation of ideas from its source novel by Don DeLillo.
One critic even placed it on her ballot when voting for the 10 best films ever.
Despite only a modest rating (65 per cent) on the public review site Rotten Tomatoes, many year-end lists and polls placed it in the Top 10 of 2012.
But the movie is objectively bad.
Not only is it simply not enjoyable to watch (the first hurdle for any marketed entertainment), the story itself is badly told.
We are told that he’s a brilliant investor, but we’re not shown that — leaving the audience unconvinced.
His character is completely unsympathetic (and intentionally so), but then we are expected to believe in his crying fit during the funeral procession of a man we never see (alive). Finally, the climactic scene is interminable, and clichéd in just the most embarrassing ways. (“Fight Club” did something similar, with similar themes, 13 years ago. Then, it was original. And good.)
The lesson? We all know filmgoers can be fooled by flashy previews or sequences that appeal more to the gut or heart than to the brain.
Many big film studios exploit this and already have your money by the time you realize your disappointment.
Film critics are supposed to be above this, but there are a whole other set of movie manipulations that are aimed at critics and trip them time and again.
They are mesmerized in the same way by fancy shots, high-minded dialogue and quirky character behaviour. And in both cases, what gets ignored is whether the story (conveyed by the writing and directing) is compelling and makes sense.
That’s the hardest thing for a movie to do right, but when it does the results are transcendent.
“The Silence of the Lambs,” “The Godfather,” and “The Social Network” are all endlessly re-watchable because the story, characters and cinematic presentation of each resonate deeply.
That’s what we should look for, but like a pickpocket, the studios make you look the other way while they take your money.
Though many film critics are unreliable, film criticism itself is a valid form of journalism with many excellent practitioners (try Googling: Wesley Morris, Philip French, Mike D’Angelo, and David Denby; my own far inferior blog is at letterboxd.com/khannaford).
Good critics occasionally exercise bad judgment (all but one of the above were fooled by “Cosmopolis”), but largely they watch sharply and construct reasonable arguments to ground their verdict.
The savvy viewer would be wise to sample many critics (at mrqe.com, say) and choose to read regularly the ones whose judgment they trust.
Then you can avoid being distracted while your pockets are emptied.
Keith Hannaford writes from St. John’s.