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From the Wire: A Critic Reconsiders His Negative Review

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by Matt Singer
March 20, 2013 12:11 PM
7 Comments
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The Telegraph's Robbie Collin says Lee Daniels' "The Paperboy" was the worst film he saw at last year's Cannes Film Festival. Now at the time, he called "The Paperboy" "a transcendentally awful piece of filmmaking" and "a dismally bad job" and a "definitive doubleyou-tee-eff moment." So he was pretty clear: this was not a very good movie. But now "The Paperboy" is coming to theaters in the UK, and believe it or not, Collin says he "can't wait to re-watch" this disaster:

"Will 'The Paperboy' play differently outside of the festival hothouse? I hope so, but even if it doesn’t, at least it will have failed on its own loopy terms. Even so, it could be that 'The Paperboy' is simply misunderstood in its own time. No less a film than Alfred Hitchcock’s 'Vertigo' (1958) suffered the same fate. Last year, it was named the Greatest Film of All Time by Sight & Sound, but on its release, Hitchcock’s masterpiece was met with a barrage of bad-to-lukewarm reviews (Sight & Sound’s own critic bemoaned the 'egg-shell thinness' of its plot)."

Just so we're clear, Collin is comparing Hitchcock's "Vertigo" -- one of the greatest films of all time -- to a movie where Nicole Kidman pops a squat over Zac Efron's chest and urinates on him to save him from jellyfish stings. Are we clear about this? I mean there's a YouTube clip of her doing it that I could put here, but I feel weird embedding that on my blog. We're clear right? Kidman pees on him. There's a close-up of the pee.

My own first viewing experience of "The Paperboy" was quite a long ways from the Palais at Cannes. I saw it, just a few weeks ago, on my laptop's DVD player. Beyond those big infamous moments everyone mentions in their reviews -- Kidman "saving" Efron, John Cusack giving Kidman an orgasm from across a room through the power of his, uh, penetrating glare -- I didn't find it particularly memorable. Even with those few WTF-heavy sequences, there's not a lot here worth saving. Unless we're "saving" it the way Kidman saved Efron. In which case...

But Collin's point is an interesting one: critics didn't like "Vertigo" in 1958 and last summer a new generation of critics declared it the greatest movie of all time. In fact, most critics dismissed Hitchcock entirely right up through the early 1960s, when he became a favorite subject of Andrew Sarris and the auteurists. Is it really that inconceivable that in 50 years, some critic may write a really passionate defense of "The Paperboy" and Daniels' oeuvre? I mean, yeah, it's mostly inconceivable, but not totally inconceivable.

In the same piece, Collin writes about how a recent rewatch of Paul Verhoeven's "Showgirls" -- another swampy thriller that was quickly dismissed as camp upon its initial release -- gave him a whole new outlook on the film. Previously, all he saw was "bona fide junk." Now he's discovered "sickly vibrancy, moral trickiness and wicked satirical bite." 

This is a good reminder that while movies are fixed, our opinions are fluid and mutable. Critics like to position their commentary as definitive and authoritative, but not only is criticism subjective, it's also subject to change. The film critic's beat moves too quickly these days, but I've often felt that the ideal way to review a movie is to see it twice before writing about it. First impressions aren't always perfect.

Just last night, I was watching one of this year's new releases for the second time. Freed from the burden of having to closely follow the plot, I felt things more deeply than I had when I wrote my original review; there were themes and ideas that I only half-recognized the first time, and flaws I'd previously overlooked because I'd gotten too caught up in the story. Maybe a second viewing of "The Paperboy" would yield undiscovered cinematic treasures, and make plain its status as this generation's "Vertigo."

Yeah, no, I doubt it too.

Read more of "Were Critics Wrong to Boo 'The Paperboy?'"

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7 Comments

  • NeilFC | March 21, 2013 4:19 PMReply

    Come on Matt, Collin was not comparing "The Paperboy" to "Vertigo" in terms of quality, he was merely pointing out that "Vertigo" was a film that was generally not well received when it was initially released. I'm also a bit non-plussed, not to say hugely irritated that people are making such a huge fuss over the Nicole-peeing-on-Efron scene. The way that so many critics have gotten their knickers in a twist over it, seems an awful lot like a case of The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

  • bob hawk | March 26, 2013 5:38 AM

    Ha! Loved the last part, NeilFC. I bet there's a helluva lot of people who -- fully, semi-, sub-, or un-consciously -- would love to pee on Zac Efron (in an erotically positive way, with his chest merely a starting point). THE PAPERBOY is going to be a guilty pleasure for years to come.

  • Arch | March 20, 2013 7:35 PMReply

    To be fair he doesn't state he "will" change his mind. He relies a bit too much on the "forgotten/misunderstood gem" cliche though. Problem is: it's relevant-ish yet easy to bend. Best example that comes to mind is an LA Weekly article about the singer of Creed who once said they were misunderstood by critics like Led Zep in their time, and that they may one day be remembered as a killer act. But the writer added that, yeah Creed actually never were Led Zep!

    Still, Collin makes a few points (festival screenings) but the Hume quote looks like a pull quote to justify relativism. And I never get the "so bad it's good" thing anyway. Again as Daney said (about Fritz Lang indian flicks that he genuinely loved): a movie doesn't gain anything by being watched ironically.
    I haven't seen The Paperboy so I don't know if it's our generation's Vertigo, or even our Showgirl. I mean I liked Showgirl even back then and still think it's a good movie and a pure Verhoven flick (it's true most Verhoven movies were divisive and/or misunderstood). I still won't go as far as saying it's as good as Razzie award winner Heaven's Gate.
    I know "misunderstood gem" happens, sometimes because of the context (Carpenters' The Thing was panned because of both the US context and E.T.) but isn't it too often used as an easy excuse (The Thing was still a hit among french critics)?

  • Edward Copeland | March 20, 2013 5:33 PMReply

    I only saw it once -- at home, on DVD -- and it was the worst thing I saw last year. Then again, I didn't care much for Precious either and think Daniels was being serious on The Daily Show when he said it was a comedy. (How else do you explain the main character doing a laugh-out-loud fantasy where her and her abusive mom were re-enacting TWO WOMEN to the point of speaking in Italian? Where exactly did she stumble upon that movie?) The casting for Daniels' upcoming film The Butler contains some odd picks as well. Robin Williams as Eisenhower? John Cusack as Nixon?

  • Scott Mendelson | March 20, 2013 12:44 PMReply

    I was frankly flabbergasted by the reaction of the whole jellyfish scene. It's so incredibly shocking and offensive that the same scene happened (albeit mostly offscreen) during an early season episode of Friends back in the mid-90s. I think at least some of the alleged outrage was merely so that writers/bloggers/etc. could put 'Kidman PEES on Efron!' in their headlines and thus attract web traffic. I think The Paperboy is a noble failure, full of fantastic against-type performances but not in service of a story well-told. I almost wish it was a little bit trashier to justify the 'outrage' and the reaction to what is a mostly respectable bit of R-rated southern gothic film noir made the critical community look like a bunch of puritans with a bad case of the vapors. I see reactions to stuff like that I think we partially realize why so many mainstream movies come off as somewhat generic. I don't want to get into a 'films today... bah!' rant (because I don't believe that) but I can't help wonder what kind of hyperbolic reactions we would see from allegedly respectable critics to the likes of Apocalypse Now in this day-and-age.

  • No | March 20, 2013 12:42 PMReply

    I do not understand why Vertigo is consider one of the greatest films of all times. That it is by film critics underscores their diminished capacity.

  • d | March 21, 2013 6:32 PM

    That you made this comment underscores the complete worthlessness of it.

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