From the Wire: Eff Deliberate Mediocrity

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by Matt Singer
January 31, 2013 10:54 AM
1 Comment
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"Playing For Keeps."

The A.V. Club uses an A through F rating system for their reviews, and around the office they refer to a D-, one step up from the "nuclear option" of a failing grade, as "the gentleman's F." In a smart article published yesterday, The A.V. Club's Scott Tobias examines the sometimes arbitrary gulf between D- and F, and realizes that he actually prefers the movies he's given Fs to over the ones he's given gentleman's Fs to.

For example, Tobias gave the recent Gerard Butler rom-com "Playing For Keeps" a D- because it was "bland, flavorless, and conventional." And even worse -- that's exactly what it hoped to be. Citing a phrase invented by New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, Tobias says "Playing For Keeps" belongs to a tradition in Hollywood of "deliberate mediocrity." Whereas movies that have received the A.V. Club F, like "Atlas Shrugged Part II," are floridly, even entertainingly horrible. And at the very least, they're unique and memorable. In six months, the only people who'll remember "Playing For Keeps" are Gerard Butler and his business manager.

Essentially then, at least in Tobias' eyes, an F from The A.V. Club is actually more of an endorsement than a D-:

"Too often, our contempt is misplaced, settling on movies that provoke us rather than the ones that bore us. Yes, the outrageously terrible likes of 'Atlas Shrugged Part II' or 'The Paperboy' deserve to be called out, but neither film can be faulted for lacking a point of view, however risible that point of view may be. But bad movies are better than useless ones."

I completely agree with this assessment, and it's one of the arguments I was trying to make in my recent piece about why I like going to the movies in January, and again when I appeared on Q With Jian Ghomeshi earlier this week talking about the same topic. Sure, bad movies come out in January -- but many are a different, arguably better breed of bad movie than the deliberate mediocrity we get the rest of the year.

Let's imagine a hypothetical bad movie. It cost $225 million to make, it's the third film in an incredibly lucrative franchise, and it's got a firm release date, right in the middle of summer movie season. The production is troubled, the script is a mess, and one of your stars looks like he'd rather pull out his teeth with a pair of rusty pliers than give even an ounce of effort to his role. The thing is headed for train wreck territory. But you've got almost a quarter of a billion dollars sunk into this one hypothetical bad movie (we'll hypothetically call it "Guys In Suits 3"). At that point, the movie becomes the cinematic equivalent one of America's bailed out banks: too big to fail.

So you turn a potential train wreck into a controlled demolition. You throw in a time travel storyline to minimize the role of the unhappy star. You toss in some wacky cameos, plus so many special effects and chase scenes that audiences will barely have time to consider just how little fun they're actually having. You go for deliberate mediocrity. You make $624 million (hypothetical) dollars worldwide, and entertain almost no one.

Earlier this week, I posted a brief story about "Movie 43" producer Peter Farrelly taking shots at critics on Twitter for being excessively harsh to his new film. "You always complain that Hollywood never gives you new stuff," he grumbled, "and then when you get it, you flip out." I haven't seen "Movie 43" so I can't tell you whether critics were being too harsh on the movie or not. But in general, I think Farrelly might have a point.

Critics want their good movies to be bold, take chances, and do something different. Shouldn't they want their bad movies to be the same way? We reward creativity and originality in great films -- maybe we need to start doing the same for bad ones, too. If critics destroy every movie that tries to do something new and fails, they send the message that they prefer movies that don't take risks to ones that do. And that's how deliberate mediocrity wins.

Eff that (or, F that, I suppose). Maybe this is a problem unique to critics, who watch so many movies -- and so many identically mediocre movies -- that it's almost refreshing to find something uniquely bad, even if it is bad all the same. Give me "Battlefield Earth" or "The Devil Inside" or "Gone" over "Guys in Suits 3" "Men in Black 3" any day. The former are undeniably worse than the latter -- and arguably a lot more interesting.

Read more of "The 'Gentleman's F' and the Scourge of Deliberate Mediocrity."

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1 Comment

  • Arch | February 1, 2013 3:06 AMReply

    I don’t get the MI3 reference but I watched a bunch of found-footage horror films few months ago (for some reason). I admit I did realize then I was enjoying some of these mostly because they were "trying something" so to speak. I even genuinely liked a few not so great reviewed flicks.
    Yet I also watched The Devil Inside and, maybe because found-footage was nothing new anymore, but rather because of acting/continuity/script etc. issues I still think it's terrible (as is most of The River or Paranormal Activity 3 etc.).

    Farelly is a clever dude, there’s no denying he has a point (even though a/It may just be an easy way out and b/again I'm still not sure innovation in Movie 43). But, if a movie can be gloriously wrong and then fun, or may have a "nice try" mention I’m not sure it should change the note in the end (that’s where the review itself comes in handy). Not to forget those who try to hard, those who try for the sake of trying etc.
    Finally when I read "deliberate mediocrity" I think of a film clearly looking for consensus, tepid arguments et al. Which IS the worst. That’s a movie that is deliberately looking for a C but pisses of critics and ends up with a D (which really is an F ?).
    Well in any case that’s an interesting conundrum around the notation system.

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